Mountain bikers in Moab pay to ride

  • Fee foes: Rim Cyclery owners Robin and Bill Groff

    Greg Hanscom
  • Slickrock Riding: Cyclists pay to ride the ridges near Sand Flats

    Greg Hanscom
  MOAB, Utah - Mountain bike pilgrims who come to ride Moab's Slickrock trail find something new these days: a tollbooth. Next to the booth, a sign reads: "Welcome to Sand Flats. All fees are used here for improvements."


A visit to this mecca of mountain biking now costs $1 per person if you're walking or riding, or $3 for the first person if you drive to the trailhead. Camping costs, too: $4 per night for the first person, $2 each for everyone else in the group.


The price comes as a shock to folks who haven't been here in a few years. It used to be you could throw your sleeping bag on the sand for the night and spend the next day skinning your bike tires and knees on the roller-coaster redrock, all free of charge.


Locals knew the area as a party spot. Four-wheelers left tire tracks up and down sandstone fins, and Jeep trails snaked through the sagebrush. "The Slickrock area was always a dump," says Bill Groff, a longtime Moab resident. "We'd go up there in the "60s and throw parties and break bottles. We saw it as a sacrifice zone."


Now, Jeep tracks have been replaced by groomed gravel drives and picnic tables. Sand Flats sports a sprawling 150-site campground with fire pits, trash cans and pit toilets, and a freshly paved 100-car parking lot for day-users at the Slickrock trailhead.


The facelift is thanks to an innovative user-fee program put in place by the Bureau of Land Management and Grand County in 1995. For the Moab area BLM, user fees are a tried and true solution to controlling an onslaught of recreationists. The agency has been collecting fees from commercial river runners since the early 1970s. It started charging private boaters in 1983, and about three years ago began charging mountain bikers as well. All this was before Congress approved the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program last year.


Moab officials say fees are the BLM's bread and butter, but not everyone has taken kindly to paying to play on public lands.





Giving an agency arms and legs


"We've been forced into it here," says BLM resource advisor Russ Van Koch. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, use of the Moab area exploded, but funding grew only slightly. Hordes of river rafters, kayakers, Jeep safari-goers and mountain bikers were taking an increasing toll on limited resources.


The problem was most obvious each spring, when hundreds of college and high school students converged on Sand Flats for the spring-break bash. The seasonal ranger who oversaw the BLM campgrounds and trails in the area was overwhelmed. "It just kept multiplying and multiplying," says Van Koch. "People would roll in and all the campsites would be taken and they'd just drive across the lands and leave new campsites and new roads."


In the spring of 1992, the Moab sheriff's department called in reinforcements and rounded up underage drinkers at Sand Flats. They used the middle-school gym as a holding center, Van Koch says, while they called parents and said, "Your kids are down here. Come get "em."


It was time to do something serious, says Moab's Chief Deputy Sheriff Doug Squire. "It's quite a burden to be in a place where people come to play, and the locals have to cover the cost."


With little funding for staff and infrastructure, the BLM turned to user fees. But there was a catch. If the agency collected fees, the law required that all but 15 percent be sent back to Washington, D.C. So in 1995, the agency came up with a plan to keep the cash on the ground: Grand County would collect fees at Sand Flats and set up a campground on state land. The BLM pitched in where it could, funding the parking lot and pit toilets, and the federally funded service organization AmeriCorps sent workers to help build a tollbooth and clean up campsites.


The program has made a big difference, according to Squire. Theft and vandalism rates have dropped, and the area feels more peaceful and organized, he says. "You hate to start charging for that sort of thing. But then again, (mountain bikers) are the ones who are causing the impact and they need to shoulder some of the burden."


Last year 1.2 million people used Moab area BLM lands. The agency collected about $228,000 in fees from campers and river runners. Sand Flats saw nearly 170,000 user-days, and the county pulled in $129,000.


Today, congressional appropriations don't even cover salaries for the Moab BLM's recreation staff, says Van Koch. User fees make up the difference and pay for seasonal staff salaries and campground and trail maintenance. They also help cover search-and-rescue costs. Since 1992, fees have helped build 16 new campgrounds in the area.


"Without fees we'd be here with no arms and legs," says Van Koch. "It's our best long-term support. We can always count on people in that sense, when we can't always count on appropriated money."


AmeriCorps is no longer helping with the project, but at this point, the Sand Flats fee program is self-sufficient, says Van Koch. And now the new federal test program is kicking in. The BLM will soon be charging $4 per night at nine campgrounds along the Colorado River as part of the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program Congress passed in 1996.





Looking for cash in all the wrong places


For the most part, mountain bikers aren't complaining about the new fees at Sand Flats. Locals can earn a free annual pass by helping with trail maintenance, and anyone can pick up a season pass for $10.


"I haven't heard anybody complain about paying a buck to ride up there," says Anne Young, an employee at Moab's Chile Pepper bike shop. "It makes a lot of sense. If it wasn't for the fees, that place would be one big toilet."


But not everyone approves of paying to use public lands. Down the street at Rim Cyclery, owners Bill and Robin Groff think it's a terrible idea. The former miners say the BLM should look to Congress for its funds, not to recreationists.


User fees are "a way for agencies to get around doing their job," says Robin. "They don't have to get up there and root and rah to get their share of the pie. They just slap a user fee on us."


There is no doubt that land-management agencies in the West are short-funded, he says, but user fees exclude people who don't have much money. "It makes an aristocracy out of park rangers and federal land users," he says.


Forcing visitors to pick up the tab is insulting and bad for business, says his brother Bill: "If it weren't for the tourists, I wouldn't be in business, and this town would be a sleepy little dust bowl."


The new, improved Sand Flats just sends people elsewhere, where they do more damage to the land, adds Bill. Last Memorial Day weekend, he flew over Moab in the small airplane he used to scout mining claims before he and his brother opened the bike shop in 1983. "I was amazed at how many people were out there, in places I didn't even know had roads to them," he says. "There were campers set up, tents set up, people camping on rocks - more than I ever expected."


But back at the police station, Deputy Sheriff Squire shakes his head. "The times for free stuff are over," he says. "If you want to go play, you're just about gonna have to pay for it anymore."





* Greg Hanscom, HCN assistant editor


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