Both the Missoula and Seeley Lake Nordic ski clubs are pushing back against a proposal by the Lolo National Forest to charge for winter parking at Pattee Canyon and Seeley Creek, saying the fee could drain funds that currently allow the clubs to groom the trails.

In a letter to the Nordic ski community, the Missoula club’s board writes that it opposes the proposed new winter recreation permit for the Pattee Canyon Recreation Area, which includes both the Pattee and Crazy Canyon trailheads, as well as for the Seeley Creek Nordic trails. The mandatory parking permit would cost $5 per day or $35 per season, and it’s not clear if the permits can be used at both sites; however, they can’t be used at the Nordic trails at the Lolo Pass Visitor Center on the Clearwater National Forest.

The fees are intended to provide the Lolo National Forest with money to support and enhance Nordic skiing and trailhead facilities at each site. The problem is, currently the Nordic ski clubs groom and maintain the trails in Pattee Canyon and Seeley Creek, as well as those in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. The cost is covered by a variety of membership dues, state grants and volunteer efforts.

pattee canyon ski file

Two cross-country skiers skate their way through the trees at the Pattee Canyon National Recreation Area in this 2016 file photo. Members of the ski clubs that groom the trails here and at Seeley Creek are voicing concerns that a proposed parking permit system would siphon off donations that help pay for grooming the trails.

“We have fee tubes there (at Seeley Creek) for donations and if the Forest Service starts to charge a parking fee, that will detract from our donations, and they’re a very important part of our work there,” said Lynn Carey, the vice president and race director for the Seeley Lake Nordic Ski Club. “There’s also a big push at campgrounds — Seeley Lake, Big Larch — and all the cabins they rent. They’re all getting big bumps in fees.”

The Missoula club’s board didn’t response to email requests for an interview. But in a letter to its members, the board wrote they have numerous concerns.

In particular, the board wrote that no clear written commitment has been made by the Forest Service to return revenue from the fees directly back to improving and enhancing the current ski trails at Pattee Canyon.

“Without a plan from the USFS specifically outlining how funds generated from the proposed fee would enhance the experience of Nordic ski trail users at Pattee Canyon, we are concerned that this fee would increase cost to users at Pattee Canyon without any substantive change in the services provided at this site,” the club wrote.

Like the Seeley Lake group, the Missoula ski club’s board also was concerned that a fee for Pattee Canyon could reduce memberships, resulting in a smaller budget and threatening their ability to provide grooming throughout the Missoula area, including at Lolo Pass, the Lubrecht Experimental Forest, the Rattlesnake and Pattee Canyon.

They also are worried the proposed fee would unfairly burden “financially disadvantaged users” and discourage participation in winter recreation at Pattee Canyon, and that the need to visit the Forest Service office during business hours to obtain a permit “would create undue hassle.”

And they voiced alarm that winter recreation users are being asked to pay for facilities and services that users in other seasons receive for free.

“Specifically, revenue from the proposed fee is slated to be used to pay for winter maintenance of bathrooms, trash pickup, sign maintenance, and mutt mitt resupply; however, all of these services receive heavy use year round in Pattee Canyon,” the group wrote. “We do not support winter users being asked to pay for bathroom cleaning and trash pickup when summer users are not.

The Missoula club’s board noted it can’t support a required fee if a large portion of the Nordic ski club and other outdoor recreation communities also are opposed to the fees, writing that “access to winter recreation opportunities is important to the well-being of our community.”

Currently, the county plows the road and a portion of the parking lots in Pattee Canyon during the winter so residents can reach their mailboxes. The county also plows the Seeley Creek parking lot.

While the clubs groom the trails, the Lolo National Forest maintains the bathroom and collaborates with them on signs.

The Missoula club added that it’s grateful for the partnership, and appreciates that they are looking for ways to enhance support for skiers at Pattee Canyon. They also listed changes to the proposal that could earn the ski club’s support.

Those changes include providing a specific plan on how the fees would enhance the skiing experience at Pattee Canyon and provide discounted or free fees or permits in certain cases, and making sure season passes could be purchased online and at local winter sports retailers. They’re also requesting that “a significant portion” of the fee revenue be guaranteed to support grooming operations, which would reduce the amount needed through membership funds and grants.

“Furthermore, the USFS would need to commit to supporting grooming that matches or exceeds the quality and frequency currently provided by the MNSC,” the Missoula Nordic Ski Club wrote. “Specifically, given that potential uses for revenue will likely exceed available funds, there needs to be clear prioritization of maintaining high quality grooming operations above all else, as groomed ski trails are the key feature of the winter recreation site at Pattee Canyon.”

They also want assurances that revenue raised by winter-specific fees is used to enhance winter-specific recreation.

Carey said the Seeley Lake club also wants assurances that their fourth-grade student ski program, and others like it, won't have to pay the fees.

He added that they also wonder about the cost of enforcing the parking pass requirement.

So far, close to 60 comments are logged on the Lolo National Forest’s website on the proposal to increase fees at campgrounds and day use sites across the Lolo National Forest. The proposals are part of an ongoing region-wide effort to bring the income the sites generate in line with the cost of providing services, according to Forest Service officials. Two years ago, fee increases were proposed at both the Flathead and Bitterroot national forests. Those are expected to move forward by the end of the year, according to Jeff Ward, the Region 1 recreational business program manager.

Kate Jerman, an information officer with the Lolo National Forest, said they are aware of the Nordic clubs’ concerns over the proposal, and are working with them to provide additional information.

“We encourage and welcome the (Missoula) club’s comments on the proposal,” Jerman wrote in an email, adding that they’re accepting public comment through Sept. 30 on all of the proposed fee increases. “”After the comment period closes, we will take a close look and consider all of the feedback … (and) the Forest Service can consider amending the proposal.”

As of this week, about 60 people also had commented on the fee changes involving Pattee Canyon on the Lolo forest website, with most of them echoing those from the Nordic club.

A few comments also were made on the other proposed changes, which include doubling from $40 to $80 for the nightly rental for the Savenac West Cottage; adding the Big Hole and Driveway Peak lookouts, and the Savenac East cottage to the overnight rental system; and putting in place a $10 fee at some campgrounds that currently are free to use.

Other than commending the Forest Service for making more cabins and lookouts available to rent, the vast majority of people voiced opposition to the fee increases.

“As city and federal taxes increase this year, the burden of funding public spaces is being thrown on the shoulders of the lower and middle class,” one respondent wrote on the proposal to increase the fees at the Lolo Creek Campground. “I understand the need for funding of our public lands. But I also understand that the American people are getting pennies on the dollar for public land leases.”

That person suggested increasing the minimum acceptable bid on public land leases; setting up volunteer days to help with cleanups and managements; and using taxes, not fees, to maintain public lands.

Once the comment period closes and the Forest Service considers the feedback, the proposal will go before the Resource Advisory Committee, which currently is being filled with members from diverse backgrounds and interest areas, Jerman said. People in Missoula, Sanders and Mineral counties who are interested in sitting on the committee can contact Jerman at 329-1024 or stop by one of the forest’s offices for more information.

A final decision on the fees will be made by the regional forester.

Comments can be sent to www.fs.usda.gov/goto/r1recfee; on the interactive website; or to r1recfee@fs.fed.us. Comments also can be mailed to Lolo National Forest, Attn. Rec Fee Proposal, 24 Fort Missoula Road, Missoula, MT 59804.

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