MISSOULA — The Lolo National Forest is asking for public input on a proposal to increase user fees for its campgrounds and day-use areas.
Montanans love to recreate on our national forests, whether it’s camping in the mountains, boating on a trout-filled lake or skiing through the woods. But as more people move in to take advantage of those opportunities, they can take a toll on campgrounds and boat ramps.
So Lolo National Forest Supervisor Carolyn Upton hopes that people are willing to pay a few more dollars to keep those areas looking good. To agree or disagree, the public can submit comments on the proposal until Sept. 30 by visiting www.fs.usda.gov/goto/r1recfee or sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Flathead and Bitterroot national forests made similar proposals about two years ago, after the agency’s Northern Region was directed to institute fee increases across its national forests. The fees in much of the Northern Region hadn’t increased in about two decades.
But starting in Fiscal Year 2016, Congress and the administration slashed the budget for the Recreation, Wilderness and Heritage divisions of the Forest Service by a third, leaving less for campground and picnic area maintenance.
In both 2014 and 2015, Congress allotted $261.7 million to Recreation, Wilderness and Heritage. But since 2016, funding has been only about $175 million, while the Hazardous Fuels program, which pays for logging and prescribed burns, has jumped to $450 million.
The Rice Ridge and Lolo Peak fires of 2017 kept the Lolo National Forest staff too busy to work out a new campground fee program until now.
Now, they’re ready, having surveyed what other federal, state and private entities are charging for campgrounds and having assessed all the maintenance and improvement needs at each site.
Upton said she considers the campground fees as a pool of money that provides more opportunity separate from the Congressional budget. She wouldn’t say whether that pool of money would be needed if the Forest Service were better funded.
“The intent of these funds is to bring additional resources to the sites that have the highest use and have the highest level of development and allow us to reinvest it,” Upton said. “We managed sites that didn’t have fees with appropriated funds. But (adding fees) is an opportunity to bring some of those facilities to a higher standard. It’s a different funding source.”
Based on the work of LNF implementation officer Chris James, 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 will now cost $10 a night.
Group campsites will jump from around $30 to $50 a night. Also, a $5 fee for more than two vehicles is proposed at all campgrounds. The price increases are similar to those that were enacted in the past two years on the Flathead, Bitterroot and Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.
It’s difficult to compare public-land campgrounds to private ones, which tend to charge higher fees that a federal agency couldn’t justify. But, James said, the Forest Service wants to provide a similar quality experience and be consistent on the fees charged and the quality of the sites provided as people travel through different national forests.
Especially in campgrounds with more amenities, such as RV hookups, more money is required for upkeep. And vandalism is a recurring problem.
So it makes sense that the more popular places will cost more. Fortunately, a majority of the money collected at a particular campground goes back into maintaining that campground. No more than 15 percent of the total collected is used for administration or overhead.
Skiers will probably react to the fact that they may no longer be able to ski the Pattee Canyon trail system for free. The proposal would institute a $5 day pass although a $35 season pass is also proposed.
Because the fees are still being proposed and may yet change, depending on public input, Upton hasn’t decided how skiers would be required to pay the daily rate. A likely scenario would have skiers placing $5 in an envelope and dropping it in a box while keeping a ticket to put in their vehicle window.
Depending on how much money the new permit generates at Pattee Canyon or the Seeley Creek Winter Sports Site, the money could go toward future improvements, like more road plowing or trail grooming, Upton said.
Rental cabins and lookouts will see the largest fee increases. For example, the West Fork Butte Lookout on the way to Lolo Pass would rent for $55 a night, up from $30. Other less rustic cabins, such as the Morgan Case Homestead on Rock Creek, would rent for around $100 a night, up from $60.
To save money, some national forests have turned the management of campgrounds over to private companies.
For now, Upton said she has no plans to do that on the Lolo National Forest.
-Laura Lundquist reporting for the Missoula Current