Paying to Play on the Pisgah (and Coconino)

Patrick Scott, Pisgah District trail program manager in the Pisgah National Forest, walks on the Long Branch trail December 5, 2017. Annual visitation reaches 4.6 million a year, leaving parking lots overflowing with vehicles and trails rutted and worn. (Photo: Angela Wilhelm/

Originally I was thinking that “pay to play” generally hasn’t been working with the Forest Service. Summarized..FLREA, RACs that aren’t working for various reasons, lawsuits and so on. So there is a gap between the people who want to pay (and don’t necessarily have a place to contribute), the different states’ approaches to funding outdoor activities (hunting, ATV permits, etc.), folks who think the feds should fund it all, and making progress on getting needed funding for National Forest recreation.

Then I ran across this storyon the National Forests of North Carolina, which caused me to rethink the question and ask “how much local/regional variation in this? Who has been successful with fees?”. So members of the NCFP community, please add your own observations..

The Tsali Recreation Area, a vast network of hiking and mountain biking trails in the Nantahala National Forest, has had user-specific fees since the late 1990s, said Logan Free, developed recreation program manager for the U.S. Forest Service.

The campground is $15 per night and the Tsali Trail Complex is $2 per day per mountain biker and equestrian. The trails are open to hikers, but they are not required to pay the fee. The trails have a schedule that split the mountain bike and equestrian use between different days.

The bulk – 95 percent – of collected fees stay in the forest locally and the remaining 5 percent goes into a regional fund, Free said. Each district uses fee dollars for maintenance, projects and personnel costs associated with managing and improving recreation fee sites.

Free said the fees can be used for items such as repair, maintenance, and facility enhancement, visitor information and services, signs, law enforcement related to public use and recreation and direct operating or capital costs associated with the recreation fee program.

“Fee collections play an incredibly important role in recreation management for the National Forests in North Carolina,” he said.

Some examples of Tsali projects in 2017 with user fees include replacement of the waterline distribution, removal of 20 old cement picnic tables at the campground and replacement with 20 accessible, recycled-plastic picnic tables, and tree removal from the Tsali trails throughout the year.

Fees are also charged at the Brown Mountain OHV area in the Burke County area of the Pisgah National Forest, said Lisa Jennings, recreation forester for the Grandfather Ranger District.

A trail pass is required to ride dirt bikes, ATVs, and full-size off-road vehicles on the trails. Fees are $5 per day or $30 for a season pass, which are purchased from local vendors. They must be prominently displayed on vehicle at all times while on the trails.

“We are proposing an increase in fees to make sure they stay open for people to enjoy, to $10 per day or $50 per annual pass,” Jennings said. “Use has been growing. We have about 12,000 people per year. We have about 99 percent compliance. People who go there really understand why we have fees – this is so unique.”

Perhaps the time for fees to pay for local recreation upkeep and improvements is having its day.

Other national forests across the country are starting to implement user fees as their visitation continues to grow. Coconino National Forest in Arizona encompasses the mighty mountain bike mecca of Sedona and its breathtaking red rock landscape.

The Red Rock Ranger District uses the Red Rock Pass Program to access certain high-use sites.

The passes are $5 a day, $15 per week or $20 per year. Approximately $800,000 is raised from the fees each year, of which 95 percent is kept locally for recreation, natural resource protection and visitor services, said Brady Smith, Coconino Forest spokesman

6 thoughts on “Paying to Play on the Pisgah (and Coconino)”

  1. The danger in charging fees for access to public lands and facilities lies in the possibility of increasing the fees to a level that discriminates among income classes and begins to price the poorest among the public owners of the resource out of the “market”. The “democracy of the public lands” becomes jeopardized. A recent proposal to charge $70/day/vehicle for entering some major National Parks is an example. For the agency that needs the money to maintain facilities, the mathematical incentive is to raise the fees to the point of maximum income, not beyond. But (see logistic model) by then, many users are priced out of the market. Our legislators, who profess democracy and also determine agency budgets need be aware of this issue.

  2. I think FLREA and to a much smaller extent RACs have a proven history of being an effective mechanism for supporting recreation management in the agency. Your previous post on the interview with Scott Fitzwilliams quotes him as saying, “It’s made all the difference.”

    That’s not to say everyone is satisfied with pay to play or that there are not mis-steps in figuring out how to make it work based on the rules and regs. For example, the Red Rock Pass on the Coconino was initially much broader and not clearly tied to specific recreation sites. In 2010, the Forest lost a lawsuit when a U.S. Magistrate judge ruled the Forest was misinterpreting FLREA and was charging inappropriately for the Red Rock Pass. That resulted in some tweaks to the pass fee structure as well as to some of the recreation sites, resulting in what we have today.

    • Thanks, Mike, I did not know the extent to which the White River’s situation was a function of the ski areas which are fairly unique in terms of numbers and size.

  3. I just returned from Sedona, which is experiencing a huge increase in visitation. Fees are helping to provide amenities visitors need. We arrived at Cathedral Rock trailhead before 8 am on a weekday and were amazed that the parking lot was already full. Thankfully, a new lot had been built adjacent to the existing one. It was obvious that improvements had been made, and the fee was easy to pay at a solar powered TH kiosk. I’m hoping the program has matured to the point that fees are willingly being paid where it makes sense (and lawfully). There is no way that appropriations alone could keep the Red Rocks as well maintained as it is.


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