Friday, May 14, 2010

Public Places – For a Fee

Of all the fascinating spots here in the Eastern UP, one of my favorites is the forest between Monacle Lake and Mission Hill. It’s a bit different than the other forest stands in our area. It’s an older forest -- large maples dominate the canopy; small maples grow beneath. There’s a good number of large standing dead trees and large fallen trees. It’s in the gap-dynamics phase of forest development, in which larger trees blow down and thereby create openings for new trees, which in this forest include yellow birch and oak. The large yellow birches have taken on a good deal of character. Enough light penetrates to the florest floor to support a diversity of spring wildflowers including dutchman’s breeches, solomon’s seal, gold thread, and many others. Toward the lake, there’s a substantial number of yew, large white pines and large hemlocks but in this particular stand there are no conifers. It’s interesting ecologically and makes for a very pretty scene.

I’ve been taking my ecology class there for all of the past 15 years I’ve been teaching here at Lake State. This week, I had the summer-session ecology class there. As we were preparing to leave the parking lot, a student asked if I had noticed that it was a day-use fee area. I had not. It had never been before. We walked over to the sign and sure enough, one is to pay $4 per vehicle per day to use the site.

This US Forest Service site includes, in addition to the trail back into the woods, a picnic area and beach on the small lake. A boat ramp, an accessible fishing pier, and a campground round out the amenities. There’s always been a fee for camping, but the day use fee is a new feature. Apparently the US Forest Service needed to supplement its budget to pay for the cleaning and maintenance of the day use area. That’s understandable. Budgets are tight. There are real costs associated with keeping such a site in the kind of condition that makes it attractive for people to use. And the day use fees don’t cover those costs entirely, they only help cover them. But I think it’s too bad that the Forest Service had to institute the fee. I can afford to pay $4 to use the site. And there’s probably a USFS annual pass to put on the windshield next to the annual state park pass (if we were closer to the national parks, we’d have one of them, too, to show off on our automobile). But I fear it will have a chilling effect on site use. When choosing whether to come to Monacle Lake or to any of a number of still-free sites nearby on Lake Superior, my guess is that their choice will be to save the $4, especially for those for which the $4 represents a splurge. I hope the fee idea doesn’t spread to the USFS’s Iroquois Point Lighthouse nearby.

When we lived in Ft. Collins, Colorado, we watched as the turn-offs to public access to the Cache la Poudre River were converted to pay sites. One-by-one, the feds, the state even the county began charging fees. The town park on the river was still free, but maybe it’s a fee site, too. Somehow it was kind of sad to see what used to be free access turn into exclusive access.

There is the philosophy that people that use a public resource should pay for it and people that don’t use it shouldn’t have to. There’s also the philosophy that sites for healthful recreation represent a public good, and thus justifiably supported through general revenues. Then there’s the new economy of place-making which states that a strong, positive sense of place pays off by attracting entrepreneurial knowledge workers to an area. I wonder if a having to pay to access public sites adds to an area’s strong, positive sense of place?

1 comment:

  1. It does seem as if the age of any freebies is coming to an end. I wonder if it wouldn't be better to require fees from "consumptive" users? Hunters and fishermen have been paying for years. It seems to me that mushroom and berry-pickers should have to pay for a license, too. Maybe not for hikers who don't bring anything out of the woods. On the other hand, in more populated areas, many hikers are enjoying their walks on state game areas that were acquired through hunters' dollars...