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The Land Of The Fee?

Aflat piece of next-to-nothing land along the edge of the Kenneth Denman Wildlife Area is one of Richard Beck's favorite spots to enjoy the hobby that has captivated him since his youth.

The open area is an ideal place to fly his radio-controlled airplane, which can take off and land easily in the brushless flat along Avenue H in the White City industrial area.

"And if something happens, it's real easy to find and get to your plane," says Beck, of Medford.

While it's good, it's not necessarily $22 worth of good to Beck.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is mulling whether to require non-hunters like Beck to buy a $22 annual parking pass for visiting wildlife areas such as Denman that were largely purchased — and are still operated — with hunting dollars.

It might as well be $2,022 to Beck, who would take his plane and go elsewhere.

"I wouldn't pay that," he says. "I'd fly at my club where I pay dues anyway."

ODFW has proposed initiating the parking fee at Denman and 10 other wildlife areas in Oregon as a way to get everyone from bird-watchers and dog-walkers to hikers and anglers to pitch in financially to operate and enhance these state-owned oases.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission is set to vote on the proposed fee program during its Friday, Dec. 3, meeting at the Ramada Inn & Suites, 6221 NE 82nd Ave., Portland.

Phased in over three years beginning in 2012, the permits would cost $7 a day or $22 for an annual permit. They would be free for hunters, who already pay their share when they buy their statewide hunting licenses.

Most wildlife areas were purchased with hunting access in mind and paid for with money raised by a federal tax on firearms and ammunition through the Pittman-Robertson Act. Operating funds come from hunting-license revenues.

A 2004 management plan for Denman estimated that hunters log about 5,500 visitor-days a year there. Bird-watchers, hikers and other so-called "non-consumptive" users log about 25,000 visitor-days annually, making them the largest block of visitors. Anglers came second, logging about 10,500 visitor-days — mostly using strips of wildlife land along the Rogue River.

These groups have strained the infrastructure of places like Denman without contributing to wildlife-area coffers.

"These are users who are not paying for any kind of maintenance," says Michelle Dennehy, spokeswoman for ODFW's Wildlife Division. "This is a way for them to contribute to what they're already using."

Money collected through the program would go toward improving the infrastructure of wildlife areas, "so it will benefit them, as well," Dennehy says.

ODFW officials estimate the parking permits would raise anywhere from $661,000 to $2.1 million, depending upon each wildlife area's popularity.

It doesn't sound like too bad a deal to Josh Skaling, who drives from Eagle Point almost daily so his dog Kane can run free on Denman trails.

"He can run, have a good time, and it's good exercise for me," Skaling says.

He says he sees different walkers, and different dogs, virtually every day on the trails, but those interactions likely would drop should the fee go into place.

"It's kind of hard to argue $22, as long as they could guarantee improvements," Skaling says. "But this is Oregon. There's so much wildlife. To pay for access to one place I think is something that will drive people away."

If adopted, the passes would be sold through point-of-sale license outlets and through the ODFW website. Sales agent would earn $2 per license.

"There would be no on-site sales, so you'll need to come prepared," Dennehy says.

Under the proposal, a permit would be transferable between vehicles and would cover anyone in the vehicle. ODFW could suspend the fee requirement during special events such as Free Fishing Weekend.

The parking-permit program at Sauvie Island began in 1990, and use there has almost tripled since then, ODFW reports.

If adopted, Denman will join E.E. Wilson, Ladd Marsh and Summer Lake wildlife areas on the fee program in 2012.

Klamath, Fern Ridge, White River and the Phillip W. Schneider wildlife areas would be phased in beginning in 2013, with the Elkhorn, Columbia Basin and Jewell Meadows wildlife areas joining the fee ranks in 2014.

The four remaining wildlife areas — Bridge Creek, Riverside, Wenaha and Lower Deschutes — were deemed to have marginal wildlife viewing use or no parking opportunities, so they were dropped from the program proposal.

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

Kane and his owner, Josh Skaling of Eagle Point, find the Kenneth Denman Wildlife Area a good place to wind down and take a walk. Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune photo - Bob Pennell