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Pattee Canyon ski

Two cross-country skiers skate their way through the trees at the Pattee Canyon National Recreation Area in this 2016 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.

The national forest trails around Missoula are favorite escapes that see heavy use all year long. They are popular spots for increasing numbers of outdoors-loving locals and visitors alike, and all that use comes with a cost.

The Lolo National Forest is looking to cover some of those costs with a new winter recreation fee at the Pattee Canyon, Crazy Canyon and Seeley Creek parking areas. While nobody likes the idea of paying for something they previously enjoyed for free, it makes sense to expect those who actually use the trails to contribute to their upkeep.

However, in focusing solely on the costs, the Forest Service overlooks the contributions of dedicated volunteers whose efforts help make these trails so enjoyable in the first place. The Missoula and Seeley Lake Nordic ski clubs rely on volunteers and donations to regularly groom miles of ski trails, which other winter users also get to use, free of charge.

These clubs are rightly concerned that a mandatory fee would siphon off donations needed to pay for trail grooming equipment. Dozens of public comments made to the Forest Service echo this concern and further point out that it isn’t fair to charge only winter recreationists when the trails are used by many others throughout the year.

The Lolo Forest is proposing a mandatory parking permit between Dec. 1 and March 31 of $5 per vehicle per day. A $35 permit would cover the entire season and be good at both the Seeley Creek and Pattee Canyon sites, which includes Crazy Canyon.

The proposal is among a number of other suggested new or increased fees for campgrounds, day sites and rental cabins on the Lolo, and is expected to generate about $250,000 a year to help maintain and improve trails and facilities.

But the Forest Service has not offered an estimation of the costs of implementing or enforcing a new fee collection system. It also has not provided a breakdown of current trail maintenance costs, nor explained exactly how the fee money would be spent.

The local Nordic ski clubs are already taking care of trail grooming at no cost to the forest. Instead, club members pay dues, apply for state grants and collect donations. If they had to pay a use fee as well, they would in effect be paying twice for something summer recreationists don’t have to pay for at all.

The Seeley Lake club, which provides a heated yurt during the winter months as well, has a donation tube at the Seeley Creek trail. It’s fair to assume donations will decrease if visitors have to pay a mandatory fee. And while $5 a day doesn’t sound like much, even small fees create a barrier to public access. At a time when few people carry cash, requiring $5 to park at a trailhead, or the hassle of visiting a Forest Service office to buy a permit during regular business hours, could very well keep some users away.

Instead of draining donations and threatening the clubs’ ability to provide volunteer services, the forest should work to enhance donations and volunteer opportunities. And for their part, all Missoula County residents who love and use these trails should step up to make sure their favorite places are being well taken care of.

The Lolo offers a variety of volunteer opportunities throughout the year. These range from single-day projects to long-term commitments. And while the forest cannot solicit donations as government agency, a number of nonprofit groups like the National Forest Foundation – and the local Nordic ski clubs – would be happy to accept donations in any amount. Forest supervisors ought to build on existing partnerships before resorting to new fees.

It’s clear that many people love these trails and are willing to contribute to their upkeep. The Lolo National Forest need only provide clear information about its needs, and these people will undoubtedly pitch in to meet those needs. Lacking that information, however, they are right to oppose any additional, compulsory charge to access their local ski trails.

The Forest Service has a ways to go to build a convincing case that these fees are urgently necessary. It should start by better communicating its costs, and allowing time for volunteers to fill those gaps first.

If it turns out that donations and volunteers aren’t enough to meet the needs, then the Forest Service will be on much firmer footing in calling for a mandatory fee. But it should make sure that any fees are applied as equitably as possible, to spread the burden as thinly as possible among all users.

In the case of the Seeley Creek and Pattee Canyon trails, that would mean a year-round parking fee rather than a winter-only fee. Those fees would have to go directly to trail and trailhead facility maintenance at those sites.

And if the forest is going to start charging a mandatory fee to pay for Nordic ski trail grooming, it will have to begin providing those services itself instead. And that would be a shame.

The Nordic clubs’ efforts are the type of public-private partnership that should be encouraged. The Lolo National Forest should work to foster that relationship as it explores this issue and not take steps that could weaken it.

In addition to opposition from local ski clubs, the fee proposals have received dozens of public comments ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline. Forest supervisors should heed those concerns and hold off on new fees.

To learn more about the fee proposal and submit your own comments, visit www.fs.usda.gov/goto/r1recfee or go to the Forest Service’s interactive website. Comments can be emailed to r1recfee@fs.fed.us or sent by regular mail to Lolo National Forest, Attn. Rec Fee Proposal, 24 Fort Missoula Road, Missoula, MT 59804.

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