Maroon Bells fee a budget lifesaver
ASPEN A fee from visitors to the Maroon Bells is helping the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District offset budget cuts crippling the U.S. Forest Service elsewhere in the West, according to a top agency official in Aspen.Martha Moran, recreation manager for the Aspen-Sopris District, said she understands that some people oppose paying a fee to visit public lands. “I struggle with fees like everybody else does,” she said.But without the revenues from the fee, Moran said, there wouldn’t be enough funds reaching the Aspen district to manage the Maroon Valley facilities properly, she claimed. About 200,000 people visit the Maroon Lake area during the warm-weather months. The Forest Service operates three campgrounds, maintains numerous trails and provides toilets, picnic areas and a small visitors center to handle the hordes.The fee revenues have an additional indirect benefit to the entire sprawling district, which stretches from Thompson Creek outside of Carbondale, up the Fryingpan Valley and east of Aspen to Independence Pass.Operating the Maroon Valley facilities would soak up nearly all the funds the entire district receives in its regular budget for recreation, according to Moran. Since the Maroon Bells generates its operating funds, the district’s recreation funding can be spent elsewhere.”The money Maroon Bells collects is helping more than just the Maroon Bells,” Moran said.Fee critics contend that Congress should boost the Forest Service’s funding so it wouldn’t have to charge visitors to the most popular sites and natural features. The reality is that Forest Service budgets are shrinking and likely to get tighter because of firefighting demands and other national budget priorities, such as the war in Iraq.Congress allows the Forest Service to charge a fee when it provides special amenities at a site. The Maroon Bells qualifies for that program.The Forest Service collects fees in a variety of ways at Maroon Lake during summers. Vehicles are allowed to drive to Maroon Lake for a $10 fee between 7 and 9 a.m. and from 5-7 p.m. Traffic is restricted between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. and visitors must ride a bus. The Forest Service receives a slice of the bus fares.The federal agency also raises revenues through sales of special passes and rent of facilities like the amphitheater at Maroon Lake for weddings and special events. The Forest Service operates three campgrounds itself rather than farming them out to a vendor.The fees raised a total of $120,000 in the Forest Service’s 2005 fiscal year. The collections climbed to $181,700 in fiscal 2006, Moran said. The increase reflects greater visitation. About 180,000 people visited Maroon Lake in 2005. The number climbed to about 200,000 last year.The business plan was expanded this year to include rental of the amphitheater for special events for the first time. “We’re testing that out,” Moran said.The early results indicate it’s a hit. The facility, which provides awesome views of the Maroon Bells, has been a popular spot for weddings. It rents for $175 for two hours.The Forest Service also is exploring how it could collect fees between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., when it doesn’t staff a control gate. Climbers, backpackers and photographers regularly slip in before 7 a.m. for their day’s activities.”If we could collect fees 24/7 it would be great,” Moran said. “Maybe we’ll have a tube there for donations.”She claimed that opposition to the fee melts when people learn how the revenues are used. She was able to increase the staff to 10 full-time seasonal workers this year. They tackle everything from supervising volunteers at the visitors center to cleaning bathrooms and maintaining the campgrounds.There have been various improvements and some expansions at the Silver Bar, Silver Bell and Silver Queen campgrounds – widely regarded as the jewels of the district.The Maroon Trail, which runs between Maroon Lake and East Maroon Trail, was built to try to divert traffic off the heavily used Crater Lake route. The fee revenues fund maintenance on the popular Crater Lake, West Maroon, East Maroon and Buckskin Pass routes.By law, 80 percent of the funds collected at Maroon Lake must go to operations there, 15 percent goes to collecting the fees, and 5 percent is forwarded to the regional Forest Service office. The fee collection is a good program for the district because the vast majority of funds stay in the district.In contrast to the $181,700 raised for use in Maroon Valley, the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District receives $220,000 to cover recreation-related duties in the entire rest of the district.The Maroon Bells fee and outfitter permits are the cash cows for the district. “If we didn’t have [those revenue streams] we wouldn’t have a seasonal worker on the ground,” Moran said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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