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SALT LAKE CITY — A new proposal from the U.S. Forest Service would require fees for dozens of trailheads, campsites and day use areas throughout the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, a region that spans nearly all of northeastern Utah and sees upward of 13 million annual visits.
The Forest Service says these fees will provide important revenue to maintain services like toilets, picnic areas, fire rings, parking lots and more, as visitation to the area continues to surge.
But questions around equity remain, with advocates worried the proposal could make it difficult for families to access their public lands, especially those in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons that have been historically free.
"If you've been up in the mountains, you know how overrun they are. It's really degrading the canyons at this point," said former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, who served on the Central Wasatch Commission, but stressed he was not speaking on its behalf.
"There should be a fee structure to give the Forest Service more resources," he said, "but I'm always concerned about equity, and are we excluding people from access? I think that issue needs to be addressed."
Many trailheads in the national forest already require a $6 three-day pass, a $12 seven-day pass or a $45 annual pass.
Under the proposal, those fees would increase to $10 for three days, $20 for seven days and $60 for the year. A number of fishing sites that currently require a $10 multiday pass would also now have weekly and annual pass options.
That annual pass will be valid across the entire Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.
And the plan would impose new fees for 49 recreation sites — that includes popular destinations in Salt Lake County's Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, like the White Pine, Mill B, Donut Falls and Temple Quarry trailheads. A full list can be found on the Forest Service's public comment page.
Roughly 95% of the fees will stay within the region, says David Whittekiend, forest supervisor for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. The revenue will be used to compete for grants, hire additional employees, maintain services and facilities, fund habitat restoration and bolster law enforcement.
The proposal was submitted in July, and the public comment period will close on Sept. 7.
Those public comments will have a serious impact on how the service moves forward, if at all, with the proposal, Whittekiend says.
"There may be groups of people who absolutely oppose a fee at a certain site, and we would certainly take that under consideration as we move forward," he told the Deseret News.
So far the Forest Service has gotten around 200 comments, according to Whittekiend, who says it's too early to tell where the majority opinion lies.
The proposal builds off of a recreation plan submitted by the Forest Service in 2016 that also suggested fees for trailheads in the Central Wasatch — the plan lost traction, and the Forest Service "went back to the drawing board," says Whittekiend.
'Pay to play on your public lands'
The Forest Service manages 472 recreation sites throughout the region — fees would be required at 119 sites under the proposal, and the public would still be able to access much of their public land for no charge.
But for Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, the proposal would add yet another fee to popular destinations that are becoming increasingly expensive to access.
A single day ticket to Alta Ski Resort was $79 in 2013 — now it's between $139 to $159 at the window, an industrywide trend. Plus many resorts now require parking fees.
And as the Utah Department of Transportation mulls traffic solutions to the canyons, anyone driving up both Big and Little Cottonwood will likely need to pay a $25 to $30 daily toll in the coming years.
"The trend they're hedging towards, it appears, is you have to pay to play on your public lands from here on out because the failure of Congress to adequately fund these agencies to give the public equitable access," said Carl Fisher, the executive director of Save Our Canyons, a public lands and conservation nonprofit based in Salt Lake City.
"We understand what the Forest Service is trying to do — they're trying to get some revenue to manage the resource. The question we have is, is this the right approach?" Fisher said.
Whittekiend says the Forest Service and UDOT meet regularly to discuss both the proposed fees and the proposed traffic solutions.
"We don't know what tolling might look like with UDOT — they're still going through their process. And we felt like we needed to move forward with this proposal," he said. "We could certainly down the road modify it if it looks like we're having an undue impact on public use."
The proposed fees could disproportionately impact the Wasatch Front's minority populations, according to Olivia Juarez, a public land program director for Green Latinos in Salt Lake City. The Forest Service, she says, should look at data to "determine how residents of color, immigrants, refugees and low-income residents will be impacted," especially the new fees in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, and the Causey Reservoir in Weber County.
"It would be imprudent to apply fees without assessing how vulnerable people will be impacted," Juarez said. "The fact is that proposed changes could drastically reduce residents' abilities to improve their health and well-being on local public lands."
Could federal funding replace fees?
The proposal also coincides with Congress throwing billions of dollars at recreation and environmental infrastructure that would seem to fund the very projects highlighted by the Forest Service. The $1.2 trillion infrastructure package has several grant programs designed for transportation infrastructure, with billions earmarked for the Forest Service.
And West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin's Outdoor Recreation Act, which sailed through the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in May, would expand trails, improve parking infrastructure, "modernize" campgrounds and more.
The Great American Outdoors Act, passed in 2020, also funnels significant money towards the Forest Service — money that has made its way to Utah, most recently to fund a new trailhead in the Uinta Mountains.
But still, Whittekiend says northern Utah's National Forests are starved for revenue.
"Congress may be increasing their appropriations for these things, but our backlog of maintenance is well beyond anything that Congress has been willing to fund to this point," he said. "The fees will supplement the appropriations that we're getting and they will allow us to immediately and very directly put money into these sites."