Fee demo program makes forests better for visitors
Much has been written lately about the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program or fee demo. I would like to clarify some misconceptions about the program and explain the importance the program has in managing recreation on the White River National Forest.
The fee demo program was authorized in 1996 to demonstrate the feasibility of collecting fees to offset part of the operation and maintenance costs at selected recreation areas on federal lands managed by the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In the White River National Forest, there are several fee demo projects, one of which is the Maroon Bells.
The program began in July 2000 with a goal of enhancing visitor’s recreation experience. With an estimated 130,000 visitors annually, it’s important that one of the most photographed sites in the nation be managed so future generations can have a similar experience when viewing and traveling through the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
The Forest Service, through a partnership with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, promotes bus rides from Aspen to the Maroon Bells at a charge of $5.50. Only 50 cents of that is returned to the Forest to operate and maintain facilities at the Bells. If you choose to drive your own vehicle, a $10 user fee is collected that is good for five days. Of the money collected, 95 percent is retained by the Forest to manage recreation at the Maroon Bells. The remaining 5 percent goes to the Rocky Mountain Regional Office to provide loans and grants for the fee demo program. In contrast, the National Park Service retains only 80 percent at the site where fees are collected.
In 2003, $123,000 was collected along with a regional office grant for $25,000. Nearly $141,000 came back to the Maroon Bells for operation and maintenance. The cost to operate the site actually exceeds the fees collected and was $153,000. So, how was this money spent?
Let’s start with the campgrounds. Toilet pumping and trash collection were done at all campgrounds and the busy day use area. Campground hosts and volunteers were provided subsistence for greeting campers, collecting campsite fees and providing day-to-day maintenance. Interpretive signs were developed and will be installed this year in addition to providing ongoing educational programs. The Silver Bell campground had six new campsites added, and the roof to the entrance shelter was repaired.
Only 15 percent of the fees went to time spent collecting fees with the remainder of time spent helping visitors with information about the area while leading hikes, providing interpretive programs and selling interpretive materials.
Some people believe user fees are double taxation or users are being asked to “pay to play.” These concepts are not new. Taxes and user fees support public golf courses and community recreation centers. Yet, fees typically are charged to use a public park pavilion for a group event or play on a public golf course. The reason for these fees is taxes alone are not enough to operate and maintain the facilities, so those who use them pay.
There is strong public support for user fees when collected efficiently and the benefits are recognized. Historically, entrance fees have been charged at National Parks with an additional fee to stay in campgrounds. Fee demo sites are areas where heavy use requires higher operation and maintenance needs.
Ninety-eight percent of the White River National Forest can be accessed free of charge. Of the 2.3 million acres of forest, less than 2 percent is under fee demo, and only on a seasonal basis. Is the number of people who go to fee demo sites diminishing? No, they’re increasing.
The public is accustomed to paying for certain recreational activities on federal land. Ski areas and other commercial companies such as outfitter guides obtain permits to operate on the White River. The permit fees these companies pay go to the U.S. Treasury and are not earmarked to be returned to the forest or the Forest Service.
There is a concern that user fees adversely affect lower-income people. We determine the fee based on the local economy and comparable services provided in the area. To address this concern, we periodically provide free passes in exchange for volunteering to help us maintain recreation areas in the fee demo program.
Many people believe the Forest Service should receive more appropriated funds to manage recreation facilities. Increased appropriations would reduce or eliminate the need to collect user fees, but given our recreation budgets have declined for the past 10 years, it is unlikely this trend will change.
Recreation is increasing, not decreasing in the forest. The White River National Forest is the No. 1 visited forest in the nation with more than 9.7 million visitors annually. Should we no longer be able to use the fee demo program, we may need to rely more on outsourcing where private concessionaires collect fees and provide maintenance services.
Our mission is to “Care for the Land and Serve People.” Without fee demo we will continue to carry out that mission, but how successful will we be?
Martha Ketelle is the forest supervisor in the White River National Forest
It’s almost time to ring in the new year and if your holiday schedule is shaping up to be as packed as mine, I wish you a well-deserved rest in 2024. In the meantime, it’s our chance to party, and party we shall.