Skip the fee hikes for interpretive sites

Maintaining recreation sites on national forestland isn't cheap. And Congress has been less than generous over the years in funding the Forest Service's recreation budget. But asking for fees to visit what always have been free attractions along Southern Oregon highways is a mistake.

The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest is proposing 57 new fees or fee increases at sites ranging from Natural Bridge on Highway 62 to High Cascades cabin and fire lookout rentals, which would quadruple in one case and more than double in others, depending on the site.

Campground fees are on tap to increase as well. Five small campgrounds will convert to single-group camping if the proposed fee schedule is adopted.

Besides Natural Bridge and Rogue River Gorge, day-use areas slated to start charging fees for the first time include lower Rogue access points Foster Bar, Quosatana Bar and Lobster Bar near Agness, and the Oak Flat Campground and Bar along the Illinois River.

It's those first-time fees that are most troubling. Costs for maintaining cabins and lookouts should be covered by rental fees, and campgrounds that have charged fees for years should be able to adjust those charges to cope with rising costs.

But day-use sites — essentially roadside attractions designed for quick stops — are an important option, especially for young families with limited resources. We would hate to think that signs announcing a $5 fee might discourage anyone from stopping to enjoy the Natural Bridge on the Upper Rogue.

The logistics of collecting $5 fees for the first time are a consideration as well. If no forest official happens to be on hand, it will be difficult to enforce collections. Requiring salaried employees to spend their time checking for $5 tickets hardly seems cost-effective, although the proposed $50 ticket for failing to pay could provide an incentive to assign people to enforcement duty.

Those day-use sites are popular with out-of-state tourists as well as locals. Is that the welcome we want to extend to visitors?

The Forest Service estimates the new fee schedule will pull in $100,000 a year, which will help pay for maintenance and upgrades to toilets and other public facilities. But it seems to us that $125 cabin rentals — up from $40, $50 or $60 in some cases — and campground fee increases will make up the bulk of that.

The Forest Service should leave the day-use sites free. If more money is needed to maintain them, Congress should appropriate money as it has in the past.

Written comments are being accepted through Feb. 16, by email at Rogue_River-Siskiyou_RecFee@fs.fed.us, or by mail to Rogue River-Siskiyou N.F., ATTN: Recreation Fees, 3040 Biddle Road, Medford, OR 97504.

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