Agency hopes fees will protect a crowded wilderness

  • California's Desolation Wilderness

    Diane Sylvain
 

Desolation Wilderness in eastern California is one of those places that doesn't come close to living up to its name. Its beauty, some say, is only matched by its crowding.

Thanks to its accessibility from San Francisco (three-and-a-half hours away), Sacramento (two hours away), and Lake Tahoe (just a few minutes away), the wilderness is booming.

Last Memorial Day, for instance, 700 visitors flocked to its Eagle Falls Trailhead near Lake Tahoe. Last year a total of 67,000 day users visited Desolation Wilderness, while 18,000 people camped overnight. Of the 380 wilderness areas in the country, Desolation had the fifth-highest use according to 1993 figures - and was the most visited for its 63,600-acre size.

That could change, thanks to the area's participation in a pilot project that allows the Forest Service to set fees for uses that have formerly been free. Congress approved the experiment for some public lands last year, and under the law, wilderness managers get to keep 80 percent of any fees collected instead of sending the money off to Washington. But how much of a fee is the question.

When the El Dorado National Forest first proposed fees for both day and overnight use, many hikers, campers and anglers complained that they'd be paying a disproportionate amount of money. In late February, the agency announced it would drop any fees for day use, though other fees were still in the works. Forest official Frank Mosbacher says a day-use fee would be difficult to collect "without an army of cops" since wilderness boundaries are both rugged and not clearly marked.

Mosbacher also says an overnight camping fee makes sense, since quotas and reservations are already in place. He says the agency is now proposing an overnight camping fee of $5 a night, with two or more nights for $10, and a total of up to 14 days of camping permitted.

Some members of the High Sierra Hikers Association called the new fees discriminatory because they aren't applied to all users of public land, such as ranchers, miners and outfitters. While some critics feared the fees would be prohibitive for groups, such as Tahoe Turning Point, a camp experience for troubled teens, Mosbacher says a maximum fee of $100 per permit for 15 people should meet that objection.

No one disputes the wilderness is heavily used and bearing the scars of too many people. Mosbacher ticks off the damage: not enough bathrooms at heavily used trailheads, compacted soils and damaged vegetation around lakes, not enough money to clear trails in time to head off hikers who make new trails, and not enough money to work up and present materials educating visitors about wilderness ethics.

Mosbacher, who hopes Desolation Wilderness can begin its experiment with fees by Memorial Day, projects they can raise $180,000 a year. Since the Forest Service budget for maintenance has declined by 50 percent over the past three years, he says, "we can use the money." He also hopes a "stakeholder process' that includes an annual meeting and more consultation with users will improve the way the wilderness is both managed and treated.

For more information, contact the El Dorado National Forest at 916/621-5268.

Jerry Thull writes in Reno, Nevada. HCN editor Betsy Marston contributed to this report.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • OWN A THRIVING MOUNTAIN GUIDE SERVICE.
    Eastern Sierra guide service for sale to person with vision & expertise to take it onwards. Since 1995 with USFS & NPS permits. Ideal for...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...