The Transylvania Times -

By Park Baker
Staff Writer 

Public Land Officials Discuss User Fees – Brevard NC

 

December 26, 2016



The Transylvania Natural Resources Council (TNRC) recently discussed the pros and cons of charging user fees on public lands.

User fees have been a topic of conversation since DuPont State Recreational Forest staff announced earlier this year their research of appropriate fees for access to the forest.

Due to increasing visitation and lack of funding for the forest, Supervisor Jason Guidry said he had to explore other options, and, in accordance with a 2015 law, he put together a proposal in April that would have charged for parking at each of the forest lots, with the option for locals to buy annual passes.

Guidry and the Friends of DuPont group have maintained that 70 percent of the visitors come from out of state, many of them being from Upstate South Carolina, and they do not come to the county to spend money.

This year, however, DuPont Forest was approved for an additional $3.6 million in funding to be spent on bathrooms, utilities and parking lots, with the rest of the money going to fund nine new staff members. The fee system proposal is currently on the back burner.

As part of an independent study, Brevard College student Danielle Matthews presented her research on user fees to the TNRC during its recent meeting.

Matthews’ research looked at a number of public lands across the South and the rest of the country. She said some of the pros of charging user fees were basic equity and fairness amongst forest visitors and freedom of choice — the option to use that service or not.

“This would allow land managers to be more flexible in their fund usage,” she said. “They could improve their ability to spend as needed and eliminate ‘pork barrel spending’ and reduce the amount of waste on the ground. If the people are paying an entrance fee, they are less likely to leave their trash on the ground and be more proactive.”

Matthews said some of the cons were the potential for in-state residents to be charged twice.

“Some people will balk at paying user fees and taxes,” she said. “This should be subsidized through public funds as a public good and a public product. And we have an issue with environmental injustice —some people cannot afford to pay these fees. We don’t want to discourage use of the public lands.”

Among other issues were what to charge for user fees and what was actually fair.

“If there are fees, are they willing to pay or find somewhere else to go?” Matthews asked. “If the fee is too high, you may lose some visitors. But that could be a good thing. It could stabilize the user numbers, which comes down to a land management agreement. We need to know…how much money will go where, how will the revenue be spent, and then we look at day passes, parking fees or honor system fees.”

TNRC Chairman Lee McMinn mentioned Skyline Drive in Virginia. Skyline Drive turns into the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“Would you turn the other 400 miles into a toll way?” McMinn asked Matthews. “There’s $500 million in maintenance backlog on the Parkway, because Congress underfunds it every year. Would you charge for use of that? Do you see a danger in offsetting public lands by the amount of fees collected either from rangers or user fees? For example, states, when they vote the lottery in to help the schools build buildings, they will typically reduce the funding of public schools by the amount that they fund from the lottery. It’s basically replacing inadequate funds with more inadequate funds. Would you see that happening or do you see a way to offset that directly?”

Matthews said that if the land manager gets the money directly, then it would not go into that “pork barrel spending.”

“DuPont can’t generate revenue and get less than half of that,” she said.

Guidry said the land manager doesn’t have much control over that, and it would be up to the citizen groups and local representation to identify that displacement of public funding with what could be considered commercialization.

“I’m not sure if it’s a land manager question,” Guidry said. “It’s more a matter of who you elect and how they choose to monitor how the public lands function.”

TNRC member Pete Chaveas asked what the political dynamics were that generated the state funding.

TNRC member David Whitmire said it stemmed from the local representatives worried about local people having to pay twice.

Guidry said it was a lot of what Matthews had just mentioned: double taxation and historical use.

“If you’ve grown up in this county, for the last 16 years, at least, access to the property has been free,” Guidry said. “And prior to that, when DuPont itself was out there, there was some connection with local access as well. Locally, our representation brought up some valid issues on access, making sure that the folks who used it the most didn’t pay twice. If you’re already paying to be on the forest, you were exempted from the user fee — hunters, commercial outfitters, etc.”

TNRC member Mark Tooley said that trying to raise money in support of the public lands has been discussed for years.

“Without exception, all of them here have a friends group to help gather that money,” he said. “But how do we generate funds to help these guys?

Steve Pagano, Gorges State Park superintendent, said the park advisory committee recommended charging a $2 fee based on what Whitewater Falls was doing when the Nantahala district started charging.

“Raleigh quickly said, ‘No, We don’t charge for parks,’” said Pagano. “That’s a stance for state parks — that they’re free. The only affected aspect at Gorges is what I do in my retail area — things I put on sale in there. When the campground is done, it will be up to me to charge for peak season, off-season, prime sites, etc.”

Gorges does have “iron rangers,” boxes that allow donations from the public. State officials want any money that is collected to be given to friends groups.

“There is some new legislation that aims to encourage parks to do more revenue,” Pagano said. “They’re trying to find ways for the superintendent to take on more duties, and the park is already understaffed. We suggested 10 percent of all profit generated could come back to the park on top of the regular operating budget, and the super would have discretion on how those funds are used. The legislation says 100 percent would come back.”

Gorges would have benefitted an extra $40,000 just from the retail area.

“But each state park is different,” Pagano said. “We get credit for our revenue, and positions are funded based on revenue, but it’s not at the park level. It’s all done through the General Assembly.”

McMinn said that funding from the state level “comes and goes.”

“If the park superintendents or rangers and supervisors were able to determine and charge user fees at a local level and all that money was retained on the site and did not cause a significant reduction in funding at the state level, then there would be a great deal more going on down here,” he said. “Groups like this, and the friends groups, would all contribute into that. At the local level, I think there would be more local influence on what happens in the forest and the parks here in the county than any other county.”

Pagano said each area is different, as well. In Gorges, he can’t charge a user fee because there is an easement that goes to South Carolina.

Chaveas said the Hoosier National Forest in Indiana charges horseback riders and bikes a fee, and that money stays in the parks.

“The Hoosier’s experience is that voluntary compliance works very well,” he said. “Almost all the violations they cite are just people ignorant of the requirements.”

Dave Casey, head ranger for the Pisgah District of Pisgah National Forest, said the Forest Service had done some testing of voluntary paying, such as at Whitewater Falls, and figured about 50 to 60 percent of visitors paid the fees.

Some sites in Pisgah National Forest, such as the Cradle of Forestry, are managed by outside groups.

“These groups have some flexibility, as far as pricing, and the national forest gets a portion of the funds, Casey said.

Jennifer Kafsky, a TNRC member and Brevard College professor, asked how these sites’ infrastructure are managed. Casey said the Forest Service is essentially a landlord, handling a majority of the infrastructure needs.

Whitmire recommended that the council take a look at how the Nantahala River collected fees.

“I think they experienced a big learning curve, and that’s probably one of the biggest user fees I have seen in Western North Carolina,” Whitmire said. “They have had a lot of trouble because of just being able to collect the money, but there were no profits for them.”

McMinn said it would be self-defeating if a user-fee program required so much administration and enforcement and there was no revenue coming in.

Kafsky said the Sumter National Forest was another site worth considering.

“I remember in 1997 I was coming to the Chattooga River frequently and that was one of the first demo fee sites I think,” she said. “Before then it was a mess. We would go there and paddle, and the bathrooms were disgusting.”

She said a wide variety of people used the rivers and that the fee system has been positive.

A member of the meeting audience said that there are a lot of people who feel like they already pay user fees through fishing licenses and hunting tags, etc., and asked where that money goes.

Whitmire said the Game Land Use Permit isn’t a part of the package.

“You can hunt on private land without a permit, but if you’re going to hunt on public land that is managed by the Fish and Wildlife, whether you fish or hunt, you have got to have that Game Land Use Permit,” Whitmire said.

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission oversees lease agreements with the federal government for hunting and fishing in Pisgah National Forest.

An extra fee, above and beyond the Game Land Lease Permit, is also paid by sportsmen, who use state sites, such as DuPont State Recreational Forest.

“Most times, there is no other group that pays a use permit out there, and it is a touchy subject for a lot of the sportsmen,” Whitmire said. “So, if you start introducing fees, are we getting hit with a double fee?

Guidry said anyone who already paid a fee, such as sportsmen and outfitters, would not be charged twice.

Whitmire said there is only one piece of land managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission in the county: Toxaway Game Lands, which are open to everyone.

“All state hunting licenses are considered privilege licenses, and, of course, hunting is a ‘taking’ recreation, so part of it is managing the game also,” Whitmire said. “It’s not just paying for the land use, but also the management of the game. That’s where your enforcement comes from — the biologists, etc. Everybody is paid out of hunting fees and fishing, too.

“If you think about when these guys started permitting licenses back in the 1930s, and even around the turn of the century, those people were convinced the resources would never deplete. These guys were actually convincing people to buy licenses and put their money into it. The Roberson-Pittman Act was taking money from ammunition and putting it into buying land. These things can be done, and it was done years ago. It’s not a mountain you can’t climb when you talk about putting in fees that everybody pays. They did it 100 years ago.”

A sportsmen’s license — for hunting and fishing — is $60. Of that amount, $10 goes toward the Game Lands Use Permit. Lifetime licenses are also available, with those living out of state charged hundreds of dollars.

McMinn asked if a hunting and fishing license was basically a license to allow extracting a resource from public land.

Whitmire said it was also to manage that resource, to which McMinn asked how it would differ from a user fee, which would pay to access these public lands.

Whitmire said you couldn’t use it for hunting and fishing unless you pay it, but there are other user fees on public lands, as well. There are permits to harvest Ginseng or Galax or mountain laurel, for example.

“Summer camps also pay to access the forest through a commercial use permit,” said Whitmire, whose business, Headwater Outfitters, also pays a fee for fly fishing.

Jeff Parker, a TNRC and Soil and Water Conservation District member, said county sportsmen are used to paying fees. It’s all the other user groups, he said, that are not used to it.

McMinn asked if a sportsman’s basic hunting and fishing license should cover the user fee to access other lands.

Whitmire said, according to how DuPont set it up, yes.

Guidry said that DuPont was part of the game lands program, but Gorges is not.

Whitmire told Guidry that he thinks his biggest issue is the proximity to the Upstate of South Carolina.

“Yeah, there are a million people within an hour away,” said Guidry.

Whitmire said those from the Upstate weren’t coming through the county or Brevard to spend their money, but were heading back down the hill. McMinn said people accessing DuPont by not accessing any existing infrastructure was also an issue.

Kafsky said land managers could use a hybrid system of taxation.

The Washington, D.C., metro does the public good by decreasing congestion and pollution, Kafsky said. Public lands, she said, are “good for everyone.”

“That helps me put the issue in perspective,” she said.

Whitmire said that was a good example.

“The Clean Water Trust Fund money basically bought the DuPont (property), which is a watershed, which protected it,” he said.

Casey said part of the challenge is communicating those benefits to people who might never step foot in a state park or other public lands.

McMinn said the issue is a complex one.

“Who can charge, what they can charge, how they collect the money and how they use it is very complex,” he said. “Whether or not the sportsmen’s license should provide access is also complex — the issue of doubling and tripling taxation. People from out of state come to use it. Hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers all come in and contribute to erosion. How is that affecting it? I don’t think anyone here will object if this council can be of assistance or to prompt more discussion or start a focus group. That’s what we’re here for.”

Former TNRC chair Susan Brown addressed the council.

“Do the people who talk about the money necessary to manage public lands, do they talk about ecosystem services or is that strictly in the bailiwick of scientists at this time?” she asked. “You say this much money from public taxes should be spent on this public land because it does ‘this’ for all of us, that it goes to research on ecosystem services, which is a value of the natural world to people.”

McMinn said that beyond maintaining recreational facilities, such as trails, anything beyond that would require the expertise of existing staff. He used the Hemlock program as an example.

“We went through various land managers to get that environmental input,” he said.

Guidry replied to Brown’s question.

“I think what you’re getting at it is actually a monetary value placed on whichever ecosystem function we’re benefitting from, whether it’s tons of carbon fixed or clean water or clean air,” he said. “We haven’t done that in terms of a valuation.”

Brown asked how the “argument” could be taken to elected officials.

Pagano said that donating to some of the environmental trust funds, such as the Heritage Program, the Clean Waster Trust Fund and the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, was key.

“In development of facilities, Gorges has gone through $20 million,” he said. “We would not have got that from a user fee, but it did come through the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. The Heritage Program funded 16 inventories and studies, and they continue statewide. If we were looking where the support should go, I would say those are the most important. As far as support, energy spent supporting those programs would be time well spent.”

Casey said he thinks federally that’s the case being made all the time. The majority of what the national forest spends — between wildfire suppression and ecosystem management — comes through Congress, Casey said.

McMinn addressed Brown and said that it doesn’t sound like user fees would fund an ecosystems’ program.

“We’re talking clean restrooms and trail work, which on the surface adds a level of quality to the user experience, but they would not go that far in the big picture,” said McMinn.

Michael Cheek, a state forest ranger, said trying to deal with these trail and restroom impacts are not “nickel and dime” issues.

“The state legislature kicked up millions and millions of dollars for DuPont bathrooms, parking lots and trails,” he said. “That is just a small drop in the bucket.”

Torry Nergart, a former Gorges State Park ranger who is now with the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, spoke from the audience.

“If this discussion is to continue, there is someone missing at the table— people involved in general public health and personal wellness,” he said. “One can gain from using public lands, which is a cost offset in a lot of ways. To exercise is to not be a burden to our public health system.”

Whitmire asked Guidry about timber harvests from ecological restoration and said he was trying to develop the same model for national forests. Does that money stay local, he asked?

Guidry said by law they don’t have to, but that has been his department’s choice.

 
 

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