Northern Utahns who enjoy the outdoors should expect to open up their wallets under a plan for recreation fees on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Many popular trailheads, fishing spots, picnic areas and campgrounds that are currently free, would carry a $10 fee, according to the proposal.
Last month, the Forest Service released a comprehensive proposal to set new fees on 119 recreational sites in heavily trafficked areas, such as Big and Little Cottonwood canyons and the Mirror Lake Highway, as well as remote, less-visited places like the Cottonwood Campground and nearby Devil’s Kitchen outside Nephi.
The 2.2-million-acre national forest is among the busiest in the United States, spanning the Wasatch, Stansbury and Bear River mountains and western Uinta Mountains, seeing 13 million visitors last year.
“We do understand that this is an imposition. We’re not doing this just to generate funds. It really is a way for us to better manage the recreation facilities that we have all up and down the Wasatch Front,” said Forest Supervisor David Whittekiend. “We think it will give us a better opportunity to provide a quality recreation experience with great sites that are well maintained.”
The proposal is open for public comment through Sept. 7. The Forest Service has released an interactive online story map where you can see every site affected and submit site-specific comments.
In 2016, Whittekiend first floated the idea of imposing fees on recreation sites, but the proposal was scaled back and dropped the Cottonwood canyons altogether during the Trump administration. A $6 fee did go into effect on recreational sites along the Mirror Lake Highway in the Uintas and the Alpine Loop Road through American Fork Canyon.
Meanwhile, recreational use continued exploding, especially during the pandemic, while budgets remained stagnant. Getting the public to pay is the best way to generate the revenue needed to maintain existing amenities and build badly needed new ones, according to Whittekiend. So the forest is seeking to expand that fee program over the entire forest, to include the Cottonwoods, Logan Canyon, Mt. Nebo Scenic Byway, Spanish Fork Canyon, Diamond Fork and Strawberry Reservoir, while raising the fee to $10, which covers three consecutive days.
Every day and all year, the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache, one of five national forests in Utah, provides a treasured respite in nature for thousands of Utahns and tourists. The mountains, canyons, streams and lakes make the Wasatch Front a desirable place to live and visit, and help employers, especially in the tech and financial sectors, recruit professionals.
But excessive use is straining the Forest Service’s capacity to manage these lands, which also provide critical water sources for hundreds of thousands of people. While some funding is appropriated by Congress, the Forest Service also has the authority to impose fees under the 2004 Federal Land Recreation Enhancement Act. These fees can only be collected at locations with developed amenities, like toilets, picnic tables, parking, fishing access and trash collection.
Uinta-Wasatch-Cache officials believe the new fee program would raise an additional $1 million a year.
“It would absolutely enhance what we’re doing right now,” Whittekiend said. “It would also allow us to improve our operations on our developed recreation sites where we can hire more individuals to work on them. We can invest money through projects to improve the infrastructure. So the facilities that are there, it allows us to do a better job of working on visitor information and services.”
Officials looked at what Utah state parks and other recreation areas charge to determine that $10 was the appropriate fee. Where the new fee will see the biggest bite are the busy, and currently free, trailheads in Little and Big Cottonwood Canyon, where parked cars often overflow onto the sides of the highway.
Those parking at Mill D, Mill B, Spruces, White Pine and other popular trailheads would be obliged to pay the fee or carry a pass every time they head up to alpine destinations like Red Pine Lake, Desolation Lake, Donut Falls, and Kessler Peak. Conversely, no fee would be required at undeveloped trailheads, such as Butler and Mineral forks and Grizzly Gulch.
“We have to have a minimum of amenities to be able to charge a fee at a site, whether it be trailhead or a picnic area. Any of those that currently lacks those amenities, we would be putting those things in,” Whittekiend said. “So say if you have to put in garbage cans or interpretive signs, tables, whatever that might be, we would we would look to bring those sites up to standard to be able to charge a fee.
Whittekiend said the Forest Service is exploring the addition of amenities to trailheads or picnic areas that are currently without. “So say if you have to put in garbage cans or interpretive signs, tables, whatever that might be, we would look to bring those sites up to standard to be able to charge a fee,” he explained.
Visitors would be asked to deposit the money into steel tubes installed at these sites. Or they can obtain a $60 annual forest-wide pass they would display on their dashboard. A better value would be to spend $80 on the “America the Beautiful“ pass, which covers all federal recreation fee areas across the country, including national forests in the other states and sites overseen by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Whittekiend said 95% of the fees paid remain with the forest and would largely go toward maintaining the sites. And they can be leveraged into grants to improve trailheads, day-use sites and campgrounds, and build new trails.
Revenue from America the Beautiful passes go almost entirely to the forest or park where the visitor buys the pass, regardless of where they actually use it.
Mill Creek Canyon, just outside Salt Lake City, would not be covered under the forest’s proposed fee program. That popular national forest destination, which has been subject to a fee for 30 years, is overseen in partnership with Salt Lake County.
No increases are proposed for any of the forest’s many campgrounds that already charge fees, which are run by concessionaires. But those that the forest operates and are currently free, such as Vernon Reservoir in Tooele County, Elk Camp near Cascade Springs and Cottonwood under Mt. Nebo, would see a $10 a night fee.