Ranger: Fee demo program is `no-brainer’ for Maroon Bells | AspenTimes.com

Ranger: Fee demo program is `no-brainer’ for Maroon Bells

Scott Condon
Aspen Times Staff Writer

An experimental program that has raised controversy around the country has benefited Aspen by raising about $100,000 annually to handle the onslaught of visitors at the Maroon Bells.

The program, called the national fee demonstration project, is under fire from critics who contend that American taxpayers get fleeced when they are charged to use public lands. Critics also warn that the fees are the first step toward privatization and commercialization of cherished lands.

But Aspen District Ranger Jim Upchurch said that after administering the program for three years at Maroon Lake, he’s convinced it’s the only way to maintain facilities at the world-class destination.

“I’m not trying to do a sell-job on the entire program. But to me, it’s a no-brainer [here],” said Upchurch, who is leaving his post later this month for a position in Washington, D.C. The fee demonstration project was put into place when Upchurch arrived at the Aspen district in summer 2000.

Legislation approved by the U.S. Congress in 1996 allows fees to be charged at a limited number of sites administered by the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies. The program is experimental, but legislation is anticipated to make it permanent.

Upchurch said he doesn’t agree with the concept of the federal government charging a fee simply to use public lands. But when money is spent to maintain facilities that host significant numbers of visitors, he thinks fees are vital.

“Without the fee demonstration program we’d be in serious trouble,” he said.

The program allows the Forest Service to charge $10 for vehicles visiting the base of the Maroon Bells during certain hours of summer days. Private vehicles are prohibited from driving to Maroon Lake for most of the day.

Another 50 cents is given to the Forest Service for every bus ticket sold for the Bells route.

Last summer, the fee demonstration project raised $93,410 through fees and about $17,000 from bus tickets, according to Forest Service records. Another $8,369 was raised from camping fees charged in the upper Maroon Valley campgrounds.

The combined revenues were nearly $119,000. That covered the $85,000 in salaries of the Forest Service workers who do everything from greet visitors to janitors who clean the toilets. The revenues also helped pay for some of the improvements being made to the Silver Bell campground that were desperately needed, according to Upchurch.

Without the program, it’s doubtful that the Forest Service could maintain the facilities that were needed to handle the 200,000 or so visitors to Maroon Lake each year. Upchurch said he would be fighting for funds with the other districts during the White River National Forest budget process. The Forest Service is facing a chronic shortage of funding from Congress for items like trail maintenance and infrastructure improvements, so even the Maroon Bells would be affected, he said.

Fee demo, as the program is known, also benefits sites because money isn’t skimmed off for the U.S. Treasury. Normally when the Forest Service collects fees, it cannot keep those revenues. In the case of fee demo, all revenues remain local except 5 percent given to the regional office in Lakewood.

Upchurch said fee demo projects have been criticized for creating such a big bureaucracy just to collect the funds. In some cases the Forest Service spends up to 40 percent of what it collects to do the collecting, he said. He acknowledged that seems “self-defeating.”

The Aspen Ranger District already had staff members in place to regulate traffic on Maroon Creek Road, so it didn’t experience as great of overhead to collect the entrance fees. Upchurch said his staff has also worked hard to make sure costs associated with the program were controlled.

He reiterated assurances that the district’s implementation this spring of a registration program for trailer users in the Snowmass-Maroon Bells Wilderness isn’t a signal that the fee demo project will be expanded.

The registration requirements are merely an effort to get a better grip on where people are going in the backcountry so the Forest Service can take precautions on protecting the environment, he said.

Upchurch doesn’t anticipate fees for or quotas on use of certain popular areas like Cathedral Lake or Snowmass Lake in the near future.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]