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Fewer Forest Passes means less cash for trail work
November 12, 2003
By Rachel Odell
Deschutes National Forest officials will have less money for trail work next year when they stop requiring a Northwest Forest Pass at certain trail heads.
"The trails are definitely going to take a hit," said Marv Lang, trails specialist for the Deschutes.
Forest Service officials plan to drop about 20 sites — the majority of which will be trail heads — from the controversial fee program early next year. At the same time, officials plan to add more developed sites — picnic areas and boat launches — to the Northwest Forest Pass program.
That program requires people to have either a day pass or an annual pass to park at some recreational areas in the forest. Authorized under the 1996 Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, at least 80 percent of the money generated by Northwest Forest Pass sales is supposed to remain at the site where it is collected.
Forest Service officials have the option to participate in the program. Many officials say fees generate much-needed money. But critics charge they should not have to pay a fee to use public land when they have already paid taxes.
When officials stop requiring the pass or collecting day fees at certain trail heads in the Deschutes, there will be less of what's called fee money that goes to trail budgets, said Mark Christiansen, fee coordinator for the Deschutes. Money collected from the Northwest Forest Pass makes up about 30 percent of the Deschutes National Forest trail budget.
Less fee money will reduce the trail budget, which means the Deschutes National Forest will hire fewer people to be on trail crews, he said. The agency will take longer to clear trails in the spring and will also have a hard time maintaining the current level of trail work, he said.
Last year, the Northwest Forest Pass program provided about $176,000 for trail maintenance. Forest Service officials also had appropriated money from Congress.
Preliminary figures for the fiscal year 2004 budget show a 31 percent cut, a difference of $125,000 from last fiscal year.
In fiscal year 2003, Congress appropriated $402,000 for trails in the Deschutes National Forest. This year Congress has appropriated about $277,000 for the Deschutes National Forest trail budget.
As officials cut trail heads from the Northwest Forest Pass program, they plan to add more developed sites that currently fall under the purview of concessionaires.
Picnic areas and boat launches adjacent to campgrounds could begin requiring a pass, said Jocelyn Biro, regional fee coordinator for Forest Service region 6. That includes national forests in Oregon and Washington.
Biro would not say which sites in the Deschutes will begin charging fees.
However, she acknowledged that Forest Service officials will compensate concessionaires for accepting the Northwest Forest Pass at new areas.
Concessionaires are businesses that have permission to run campgrounds and other enterprises on public land. They operate under a multiyear contract with the Forest Service.
In the past, concessionaires have maintained picnic areas and boat launches for free while collecting money from people camping.
Concessionaires pay the agency a negotiated portion of their gross receipts for using public land.
Three campground concessionaires operate in the Deschutes, and all of their permits expire this year, Christiansen said.
Once the Forest Service starts requiring people to pay fees to use the developed areas, officials will need to compensate concessionaires for maintaining them, Biro said.
"The permit policy has changed, and we cannot require a concessionaire to maintain a site where they don't collect revenue," she said. "We need to negotiate possibly some sort of compensation."
One option is to lower the amount of money concessionaires need to pay in their gross receipts to the agency, Lang said.
Bend resident Dale Neubauer said that amounts to indirectly paying concessionaires to do work they currently do for free.
"The public loses on this," Neubauer said at a recent meeting of trail users. "We're not gaining, and the concessionaires are getting a free lunch. They will continue to do what they already do, and they'll pay less."
Christiansen said the change comes as Forest Service officials juggle renewing permits, implementing changes to the Northwest Forest Pass program and trying to respond to the public, which agency officials say want one pass to go everywhere.
"We have been trying to come up with a one-pass-covers-all," he said.
The move to drop trailheads and add developed sites is part of a master plan to develop a national pass that conforms to standards set by high ranking land use managers earlier this year, Biro said.
That national pass will be good at national monuments, national forests, national parks and possibly state parks, and will cost somewhere in the range of $85, she said.
Meanwhile, officials will continue to sell the annual Northwest Forest Pass for $30, or day passes for $5.
Christiansen, the Deschutes fee coordinator, said the move toward including developed sites and ditching some trailheads marks a new direction for the fee program.
"What originally started out as the trail pass has evolved into the Northwest Forest Pass," he said. "We enforce it through a parking pass system. The feedback we have received from the public is that when they pull up to an undeveloped trail head, they don't understand what their money is buying them. They don't feel they have gotten a value for their dollar."
By contrast, developed sites have toilets and other amenities that officials can use to justify charging fees, he said.
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