Fans of local Nordic ski trails and boat launches were able to convince the U.S. Forest Service that user fees aren’t the way to go. At least for now.
On Thursday, the Lolo National Forest released an amended Recreation Fee proposal showing it would postpone the creation of day-use fees at the Pattee Canyon Ski Trail system, Seeley Creek Winter Sports site, and the Big Larch and Seeley Lake boat ramps.
Lolo Forest superintendent Carolyn Upton said many of the more than 300 comments she read made the argument that local groups were helping to maintain those areas so user fees weren’t needed.
“It was very interesting reading through the comments – it showed public engagement was working,” Upton said. “The comments gave me the sense of who’s engaged with these sites, and it made me think differently about how we work together to ensure the quality of the sites.”
In August, Upton put out an original proposal that would have created a daily user fee of $5 or people could buy a $35 season pass for those four areas. But the people of Missoula County pushed back.
In addition, the fees for 23 campgrounds would increase by $5 to $10 a night. Some of the most popular would be the most expensive: Big Larch, Lake Alva, River Point and Seeley Lake would all jump to $20 from $10 a night. Meanwhile, seven others that have been free in the past, including Lake Inez and Fishtrap Lake would cost $10 a night.
Group campsites in some campgrounds would jump from around $30 to $50 a night. Also, a $5 fee for more than two vehicles was proposed at all campgrounds.
Lookouts and cabins, which used to go for $40 to $80 a night, will jump to $80 to $115.
Upton is going ahead with the proposed campground increases, which remain the same as the original proposal.
The word “postponed” implies that Upton still plans on creating fees for the four ski and boat-launch areas at some time in the future. But she said there was no hard date.
“We will monitor these sites to ensure that the site quality and service is maintained through the years,” Upton said. “If at any point, we feel that we’re unable to maintain the quality of that site and that experience, then we’re going to have to engage in a conversation of how we can bring more capacity. It could be fees, it could be partners or it could be working with more groups. But fees could be one of those solutions.”
Upton said some of the comments weren’t supportive of adding any more fees while others acknowledged the need for the increases.
The Lolo National Forest is increasing the fees to pay for upgrades to aging facilities to bring them more in line with similar private facilities. These days, more money is required for upkeep, especially in campgrounds with more amenities, such as RV hookups. And vandalism is a recurring problem that has to be cleaned up.
A majority of the money collected at a particular campground goes back into maintaining that campground. No more than 15% of the total collected is used for administration or overhead.
With Congress allocating less money for public facilities and amenities on public land, the Forest Service is forced to require the public to pay more. Some national forests are so strapped that they’ve turned management of campgrounds over to private companies.
That hasn’t happened yet in Montana as the Flathead, Bitterroot and Helena-Lewis and Clark national forests have already implemented price increases similar to those proposed by the Lolo National Forest.
Even though the Lolo National Forest could use the money now, the campground and cabin price increases probably won’t go into effect until 2021 because a few hurdles still need to be cleared.
The Lolo National Forest will be presenting the fee proposal to four regional resource advisory committees over the next three months. Upton is hoping the committees will recommend that the Forest Service go ahead with the increases.
Another other catch deals with reservations. People have already made online reservations this year for some of the cabins and campgrounds at the current rates, so implementing the proposal now would hit them with an unexpected increase.
“It could be as early as this summer. But more likely next summer,” Upton said.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.