WHITE CITY — Those who join Murray Orr on one of his occasional birding trips to the Kenneth Denman Wildlife Area get an eyeful of colorful fowl, considering the fields off Agate Road were bought for bird hunting with guns, not with field glasses.

WHITE CITY — Those who join Murray Orr on one of his occasional birding trips to the Kenneth Denman Wildlife Area get an eyeful of colorful fowl, considering the fields off Agate Road were bought for bird hunting with guns, not with field glasses.

Sparrows, warblers, hawks and both seasonal and year-round waterfowl make Denman one of the Rogue Valley's most popular birding destinations.Each year, the 1,760-acre area logs an estimated 25,000 visitor-days, or 12-hour periods of visitation.

"Normally out there, you can see a little bit of everything," says Orr, of Medford.

But what you won't see is any improvements to the fields, gates, trails or other wildlife-area infrastructure paid for by the $22 annual wildlife area parking pass on Orr's dashboard.

Now in its third year, the permit-only parking program meant to pump dollars from non-hunters into wildlife areas has yet to pay for any improvements at Denman or 10 other wildlife areas added to the program since it began in 2012, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife records.

The problem, ODFW officials say, is that they have yet to come up with a formula that fairly metes out revenues from the statewide permits to the wildlife areas most often visited by those buying them.

Possibilities such as dividing the pot based on estimated non-hunter use, wildlife area size or the area's nearby population, cutting the pie into equal shares or having wildlife areas apply for grants all have flaws that have kept the agency from dispersing the money.

"Just pushing it out is easy," says Ron Anglin, the ODFW's Wildlife Division administrator who will make the final call on the payout formula. "They just haven't figured out how to split it out. We've been trying to sift through this for a year and a half."

Anglin says he hopes to settle on a formula, as imperfect as it may be, within a month to get money flowing into places such as Denman.

"Our intent is to put money out there on the ground this calendar year," Anglin says.

The concept behind the ODFW parking-permit program was to find a way for non-hunting visitors to help fund the wildlife areas that were bought with excise taxes on guns and ammunition and run with money from hunting license fees.

Before 2012, the only parking permit needed at a wildlife area was on the Columbia River's Sauvie Island, which is by far the most visited of the 16 state-run wildlife areas. It worked so well at Sauvie Island that the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission in 2012 decided to phase in an expansion of it.

The commission set the parking permit prices at $5 a day or $20 per year, with a $2 surcharge added for the seller. The commission phased in the new program in 2012, with Denman, the E.E. Wilson Wildlife Area near Corvallis, Summer Lake Wildlife and the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area near LaGrande starting it off. Four more were added in 2013 and three in January.

The remaining four wildlife areas were deemed to have not enough use for the program.

Oregonians who buy hunting licenses receive a free permit, because they are considered already to be paying their way there. The so-called "non-consumptive users," mostly birdwatchers, hikers and anglers, would have to buy in to park at or enter wildlife area access points.

Permits are bought either through the point-of-sale computer-licensing system or from a book of prepaid permits bought in bulk by vendors who then sell them individually to visitors.

ODFW has lumped the revenues into two pots — the point-of-sale sales and the prepaid sales.

The vast majority of the $402,670 worth of prepaid permits sold in 2013 were sold by vendors on or near Sauvie Island, where the 800,000 visitor-days of use make it by far the most visited wildlife area, says Keith Kohl, ODFW's wildlife area program coordinator.

That wildlife area gets a set payment of about $158,400 a year from prepaid sales, which largely funds enforcement and other activities there, Kohl says. It was set by the Oregon Legislature before the permit expansion, Kohl says.

But figuring out the wildlife area of choice among those who have bought $124,760 worth of parking permits through the point-of-sale system since 2012 is far murkier.

Each of the wildlife areas has a management plan that estimates non-consumptive visitor use. At Denman, that's roughly 36,000 visitor-days annually — but that management plan was written a decade ago based on early 2000s data, Kohl says.

"How fair is it to define wildlife-area use by old estimates?" says Kohl, who has wrestled with the conundrum since he took the coordinator job in January.

Doling out funds by acreage would mean less-visited places such as the Irrigon Wildlife Area would get disproportionately more parking fees compared to their actual use by non-hunters.

"We're still wrestling with how to be equitable with that," Kohl says.

One option would be to scrap the equity approach and fund projects applied for by wildlife areas that sell permits.

"We want to make sure we get the most bang for our buck," Anglin says.

Ironically, store clerks running the point-of-sale system actually ask permit buyers what wildlife area they plan to visit most and log it into the system, Anglin says. But the vendor, Tennessee-based Outdoor Central, currently has no way to tease out that information, Anglin says.

"That's part of the fun with dealing with our license vendor," Anglin says. "Getting information out of that system is difficult."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com.