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.

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