KALISPELL — Gate fees in the country’s favorite national parks aren’t the only places where people may be asked to dig a little deeper into their pockets for the chance to play outside.
Over the next couple of months, forests in the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region will be rolling out their tentative plans to increase fees on campgrounds, cabins and lookout towers as the agency looks for ways to pay for the upkeep of its popular infrastructure.
The Flathead and Bitterroot national forests have already released their proposals for public comment. Idaho’s Panhandle and the Helena-Lewis and Clark forests are close to offering their plans to the public. Others will follow soon.
Earlier this week, the National Park Service announced its own proposal to more than double the peak-season entrance fees to the country’s busiest national parks, including Glacier and Yellowstone. Currently national park entry fees range between $25 to $30 per vehicle. Under the new rates, the fees would more than double to $70 during the five-month-long peak season.
Jeff Ward, the Forest Service Northern Region’s recreation program manager, said the process to raise the fees will allow for more consistency from one forest to the next and help the agency pay for maintaining and improving the sites into the future.
“The timing of it, considering the announcement from the National Park Service, has raised a lot of attention,” Ward said. “We had no idea that was coming, but I understand why they’ve done that. They have a lot of infrastructure maintenance backlog. We’re dealing with that too.”
This will be the first time that fees have been raised on most of the campgrounds and cabins in 20 years.
“We’ve never attempted to compete against other entities, but when you consider that some of the campgrounds were charging as little as $6 a night, something is out whack,” Ward said.
The state charges $18 to $28 for campgrounds without electricity.
The Flathead Forest proposes to increase fees at 12 cabins, lookout rentals and one campground. The proposal also calls for charging a $10 fee at the Lindberg Lake Campground, with an extra $5 for campers who have more than one vehicle at the site.
The fee increases on the cabins and lookout towers ranged from $15 to $25 a night, beyond the present fees of roughly $25 to $50 a night. People looking to set up camp at the Spotted Bear Campground would pay $3 more a night, bringing the fee to $13, and an extra $5 if they had more than one vehicle per site.
On the Bitterroot Forest, the proposal called for increasing fees at 14 campgrounds and three cabin rentals, plus implementing new fees at two campgrounds and one rental cabin. The increases for campground sites were a little bit steeper, but didn’t exceed $15 per night.
The largest jumps occurred at a group site at Lake Como, where the price tripled to $75 a night, and the remote McGruder Ranger’s House, where the price doubled from $50 to $100.
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Deb Gale of the Bitterroot Forest said officials there haven’t heard too much from the public since the proposal was announced a couple of weeks ago.
The only caller offered a few curse words in voicing his opinion, and two others have offered written comments that took both sides. One person said they agreed with the increase at McGruder, but worried that charging might deter people from camping at improved sites where their impacts were contained. Another didn’t agree with the charge at a specific campground that he said wasn’t maintained all that well.
Gale said she could understand his concerns.
“We might be able to address some of those issues if we had a little more money to work with,” she said.
About 95 percent of the fees collected by the agency from campgrounds, cabins and lookout towers come directly back to the national forest where they were generated after Congress passed the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act in 2004.
“Some of those fees haven’t changed since back in the 1990s,” Ward said. “We’ve tried to operate these sites at the same level of amenities over the last 20 years. The water systems are getting older. When we have to replace a bathroom, that can run $18,000 to $20,000 before construction costs. And pumping is getting really expensive. At some of the more remote sites, forests are struggling to even find someone to do it.”
All of the national forests in the region spent significant time analyzing the fee increases. Ward said most were pretty modest.
Once the comment periods end, the agency will analyze what it's heard and then take the proposals back to the regional and Washington, D.C., offices before taking the final step that requires approval of the Bureau of Land Management Resource Advisory Council.
“Our goal that we’re shooting for is to have them up and ready to go before the next field season,” Ward said. “That probably won’t happen everywhere. Some will have wait until the following year.”
In the meantime, Gale and others are challenged with putting together next year’s budgets.
“Right now, when I plug in people and their vehicles for my recreation shop — I’m not talking wilderness or trails — I only have $1,000 left,” Gale said. “That doesn’t include the cost of camp hosts, supplies, any training … none of that is covered. I will have to dip into fee collections to help pay for those.
“It’s taken us a long time to get to the point where we can ask for these increases,” Gale said. “I know it’s hard for people to accept, but the reality is that it costs money to take care of these sites. If we don’t have the money to pay for that, then some of these sites would have to be closed. No one will like that, either.”
Public comment is underway for proposals on both the Flathead and Bitterroot. To learn more about the proposals, go to www.fs.usda.gov/goto/r1recfee