Paying to play in the Sawtooths

  • Hiking in the Sawtooth Nat'l Recreation Area costs $2 a day

    Shea Andersen
  KETCHUM, Idaho - Buying a recreation pass for the ranger district here and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, two popular parts of the Sawtooth National Forest, is easy.

The hard part is remembering to do so.

For the first time ever, a walk across the Sawtooth's mountain meadows isn't free. On July 1, the Forest Service began charging hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders $2 per day to use the area; an annual pass costs $5.

The new fee is part of the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program. The Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) and more than 200 other sites around the country have three years to see if charging for recreation on public lands is a worthwhile fund-raiser (see story on page 1).

The SNRA, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, may be an ideal spot to try something new. Best known as Idaho's wilderness experiment, it's already a mixed bag of rules and regulations.

Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson says he jumped at the idea of raising money by charging people who use area trails. Because the Forest Service needs money and Congress isn't providing, Nelson says, "I embraced it wholeheartedly."

Visitation to Idaho's famous mountains has risen by 30 percent in five years, while the recreation budget stays flat. Short funds have forced the agency to lay off staff and cut corners on trail maintenance, says SNRA Supervisor Paul Ries. The district has barely managed to open roads to trailheads without assistance. Last year, a local trail-use coalition sponsored a trail crew for the Ketchum district, but even charity isn't enough. "We just can't keep the doors open," says Ries.

This poverty occurs in an area where recreation seems to be king. The Sawtooths are home to the Sun Valley ski resort, world-class trout streams, famous whitewater on the Salmon River and some of the best mountain biking in the West. Ketchum, one of Idaho's busiest tourist towns, turned away from ranching and mining decades ago. Says ranger Nelson, "Far and above, the recreational opportunities create the economic generator for the community."

John Peischl, head of the Sawtooth Backcountry Horsemen, says recreationists have no choice but to pull their weight on public land. "If you want to play, you pay. That's all there is to it," says Peischl.

Peischl's group supports the program because the money stays where it is collected. By filling out a postcard attached to each pass, trail users can even earmark their fees for maintenance, visitor centers, roads or habitat restoration.

The idea takes some getting used to. After a recent mountain-bike ride through the Ketchum Ranger District, an out-of-town friend asked: "Did we need a pass for all of that?" We did, but I'd forgotten. I carry a pass, but getting my friend a pass hadn't occurred to me.

Nelson admits that compliance has been a problem. Even some Forest Service employees have caught themselves out without their passes. So far, there are no signs at trailheads reminding people of the fees, though the agency plans to post some next year.

Rural resistance

and strange bedfellows

For some, signs won't help. "People want to think they don't have to have (a pass)," says SNRA staffer Carol Cole. "They want to think it's a voluntary program. But it's not."

Forest officials can ticket people who don't have a pass. But Cole admits that law-enforcement rangers checking passes at trailheads in Idaho could be political suicide. "Our approach has been to educate people," she says.

It's a good thing, according to Ketchum contractor Tim Kemery, who says enforcing the fees could spark violence from locals who resent federal authority. Kemery says charging for use of the public lands is no way to make money or build trust.

"We are being asked to give up our birthright to move freely on public land," says Kemery. "It has very little to do with protecting the environment, but it has everything to do with stripping our sovereignty."

Despite local opposition, higher powers in the federal government are cautiously supporting the user-fee experiment. Even Republican Idaho Sen. Larry Craig backs the experiment.

"We have an attitude that we shouldn't have to pay to use the land. But we expect the land to be maintained," said Craig at a workshop in Twin Falls last May. "I know one thing about Idahoans. They will not accept the degradation of that resource."

But standing in front of a crowd dominated by conservatives mistrustful of the federal government, Craig took a quick step back. This is only a test, he reminded them.

It was a tricky afternoon for the senator. Much as he might have wanted to side with the skeptics in the audience, he had supported the concept in Congress. Still, when one man stood up and declared he would never carry a pass, the room erupted in applause, and Craig let the Forest Service take the heat.

Craig's fellow Idaho Republican, Rep. Mike Crapo, also voted for the fee legislation, but he has made it clear that it was only because the legislation was tacked to an important appropriations bill. User fees, he says, will never fly in the long term.

"The fee is very similar to a new governmental tax," says Crapo. "It is not user fees in the place of tax dollars, it is user fees in addition to tax dollars. So I don't support that concept at all."

Disappointed by the numbers

When the Forest Service checked the books on the fee program this fall, it was disappointed. The agency had sold only 7,000-8,000 passes in an area that sees roughly 1.5 million visitors annually. Spot checks at trailheads revealed that only 20 percent of users had bought passes.

Even so, the agency picked up about $40,000, which enabled it to re-open the popular Redfish Lake Visitors' Center and beef up trail crews. "We're turning things around as quick as we can," says Nelson. "We want to get people on board by showing them some direct improvements."

The real test will come in three years, when the trial period is over. Some are nervous that Congress could use fees as an excuse to cut agency budgets further; others fear the money could disappear into overhead.

If so, says Nelson, local acceptance of the program will evaporate. "There's a mistrust that the money could get lost in the Beltway," he says. "Our biggest challenge will always be to maintain the local trust and local feel."

*Shea Andersen

The writer, a former HCN intern, works in Ketchum, Idaho.

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