If you’ve ever watched the sunrise from Garnet Mountain Lookout or kicked off a backpacking trip from the East Rosebud Lake campground, you know the Custer Gallatin National Forest cabins and campgrounds provide some of the best outdoor recreation experiences in the world. As the forest service prepares to raise user fees for local overnight sites, the outdoor recreation community should support the move.
While we can probably agree Forest Service accommodations shouldn’t be five-star hotels, the reality is recreation infrastructure has fallen into disrepair. User fees are a valuable tool to supplement funding to address essential maintenance needs on our public lands, and it’s time we—the public land owners—step up.
With more than $62 million of neglected maintenance projects, the Custer Gallatin National Forest needs financial help. The agency has identified overdue projects ranging from updating deteriorating vault toilets at trailheads and campgrounds to replacing roofs and sewer lines. Specific projects include improving the Fairy Lake road and repairing trails in the Bangtails.
Congressional appropriations and the Great American Outdoors Act provide some of the resources to address these needs, but they will not solve the whole maintenance problem. The unpredictability and slow decline of recreation funding is unsurprising given the uncertainty and partisanship inherent to the congressional appropriations process. User fees, such as those charged for campground and cabin use, are another tool to provide much-needed funding help.
The advantage of user fees is that they directly benefit the Custer Gallatin and allow forest managers to provide better visitor experiences. Under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, the forest district retains 95 percent of the fees collected at local campgrounds, cabins, and ski areas. The current Custer Gallatin proposal doubles (or more) most cabin and campground fees—with some cabin prices surpassing $75 per night—so it is reasonable to think the changes would double amenity revenues to generate more than $500,000 for the forest district.
By directly connecting the user to forest funding, this increase will be reinvested onto the ground to improve the visitor experience. While it won’t solve the maintenance backlog overnight, fee revenue is a steady stream that adds up over time. As recreationists, it is our responsibility to ensure these recreation resources are available—and cared for—for years to come. Paying for our use, rather than crossing fingers in hope of unreliable congressional appropriations, is an important way to do so.
The proposed fee increase makes good financial sense under current law, but it is a notable price hike. Though nearly 3,000 free dispersed campsites exist in the Custer Gallatin, there is justifiable concern that the fee increase for developed sites could price some users out. A better alternative fee structure would be to charge more modest prices to a wider range of users. However, the Forest Service is only allowed to charge fees only for use of developed sites or special events—it cannot charge for general access. As a result, if the agency wishes to increase fee revenues to fund visitor-related projects, its only option is to increase the price of amenities.
Changing the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act to allow for a modest entry fee could help spread the costs of visitation across a broader range of users. With more than 3 million annual visits to the Custer Gallatin, even putting a small price on general access would go a long way. Hikers or mountain bikers, for example, could pay a few dollars for an annual trails stamp with revenues going to Forest Service trail maintenance. Our local community already understands the huge recreation access benefits that can come from chipping in a little bit for projects like plowing Hyalite Canyon or grooming the public nordic trails. The national forest is our greatest local recreational asset, and our collective recreation dollars could help fill a major funding void to maintain our world-class opportunities.
I’m proud to be a member of a community that cares so passionately about recreation and public lands. Through user fees we have the opportunity to directly support our local cabins and campgrounds, boat launches, and trail systems.