Fees drive away low-income families from outdoor places like Bridal Veil Falls, researchers say

Critics say at a time when outdoor recreation is peaking during the pandemic, it makes no sense to make close destinations harder to access.

(Brian Maffly | Tribune file photo) This May 27, 2016 file photo shows Ann Tylutki, left, and Andi Hernandez hiking on Mill Creek Canyon’s Pipeline trail above Rattlesnake Gulch. The popular canyon has a $5 fee, with proceeds used for upkeep of campsites, picnic areas and trails. Researchers say such fees discourage use by low-income families.

A developer eyeing Bridal Veil Falls for a new tram and private drug rehab lodge says he wants to make the iconic Utah County site more accessible to the public, with a “reasonable” fee. But those who research outdoor recreation have found any fee, no matter how modest, can dissuade people from visiting.

A study from the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism at Utah State University in 2017 found that some visitors to the Wasatch-Uinta-Cache National Forest go to great lengths to avoid fees, sometimes spending more on gas to drive to locations that are free. Even marginal fees like the $5 charged to visit Mill Creek Canyon can act as a deterrent, especially for those with low incomes.

“There’s a psychological effect of having to open up your wallet and pay a fee,” said said Jordan Smith, director of the institute and a co-author of the study. “What we have seen is that those individuals who were making under $25,000 a year were significantly less likely to use Mill Creek Canyon. The only unique difference with that canyon when we compare with the recreation use [they ultimately chose] is the fee.”

Richard Losee, owner of the swanky Cirque Lodge treatment clinic, has been quietly working with Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee on his vision to add a rehab clinic at the top of Bridal Veil Falls and an aerial tramway to connect it. Losee said he would allow members of the public to use the tram in the summer tourist months for an unspecified fee. Visitors could still view the falls from county-owned land at the bottom without paying.

[RELATED: The fate of Bridal Veil Falls at a crossroads: Preserved as public space or sold off to a developer?]

But Jocelyn Wikle, a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, said just associating the falls with a fee could be enough to turn off low-income families.

“It’s not just the dollars the person pays, it’s the overall welcoming atmosphere of the site that’s important when people decide where to recreate,” Wikle said. “Having this high-end population, knowing that’s who’ll they be catering to, might be a deterrent to families who don’t have money to take the tram.”

The professor published research this year, which included a case study about people visiting Arches National Park on free days versus fee days. By analyzing web cams at the park entrance, Wikle found that the cars traveling to the park on paid days were newer and included more expensive foreign models.

The findings add to a growing body of evidence that those economically disadvantaged tend to be displaced by fees at outdoor destinations, she said.

“Past research and mine are predicting that lower income individuals will be the first to stop recreating at Bridal Veil Falls, and that would be a loss to the community,” Wikle said. “They are sensitive to fees at recreation sites.”

The case for fees

Public land managers, however, often need fees to pay for upkeep of heavily visited sites. In American Fork Canyon, for example, all the collected fees go directly back to improving the campgrounds and picnic sites where they’re collected.

“That’s a success story,” said Loyal Clark, spokesperson for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. “Unfortunately, user fees are one of the easiest ways for land managers to generate the revenue they need.”

In Salt Lake County, Parks and Recreation director Martin J. Jensen disputes the fact that fees deter low-income residents from using the Mill Creek Canyon.

“This in not what we have seen at all, it’s actually the opposite,” he said in an email. “Use in [Mill Creek] Canyon has gone up every year, this year it is up 34%.”

The county decided to impose a $2 fee in the canyon in the 1990s (it’s now $5) after it was being “loved to death” by Salt Lake residents, Jensen said. Although the canyon is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the county decided to be the entity that collects the fee to ensure the money was redirected back to improving the site, instead of the funds going to federal coffers to be spent across the system.

Jensen added that the county weighed the costs and benefits of a fee system in Mill Creek Canyon “at length, and [it] is why the fee program was implemented ... at $2 it did not exclude anyone.”

Pedestrians and cyclists are given free access and the county also offers a $50 annual fee that is discounted to $30 for seniors.

But researchers maintain that more fees at outdoor sites have big implications as Utahns increasingly flock to their local mountains for fun and family bonding. In a forthcoming report, Smith with USU found that participation in recreation is growing fast in Utah, especially on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest (which borders Bridal Veil Falls), the public lands closest to Utah’s urban areas.

“Not only is use increasing, but in these urban proximate areas like Bridal Veil and Mill Creek, people are recreating there more often,” Smith said. “So the impact of users fees are going to be more dramatic at those locations.”

More visits to outdoor spaces means more impact and a need for more maintenance, as Salt Lake County noticed in Mill Creek Canyon. For public land managers who rely on fees to keep these destinations pristine, Smith suggests creating fee structures that are less burdensome, like discounted annual passes.

Bridal Veil Falls is a unique case, however, where a private developer wants to build a private lodge on a publicly owned space and charge visitors money so he can recoup his costs. Smith said that takes a public asset for the public and places it in private hands.

“It really narrows down the total public benefit, the net benefit to the county or state, when you privatize these public lands and recreational opportunities,” he said. “It might make more money for a few individuals, but ... your use at the area will be expected to decrease, because it’s tailored around a specific experience being sold at that location.”

Wikle with BYU said privatizing and charging to visit the falls would eliminate an invaluable asset that’s close and heavily used by residents of Utah County, the state’s fastest growing area. She said letting a developer charge the public to build a fancy tram seems like a step in the wrong direction, especially as the pandemic has highlighted a need for convenient, close opportunities to experience nature.

“So many Utahns are out of work, have limitations on indoor gatherings and are facing a lot of stress. I think healthy and accessible outdoor recreation is more valuable than it has ever been,” she said. “This seems a little out of touch with the realities we’re facing as Utahns right now.”