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Pay to play raises hackles

UNION CREEK — The Rogue River Gorge at Union Creek is Jen Williams' rest spot during her regular trips from her Bend home to Ashland, a picturesque respite that draws awes every time.

On Thursday, the gorge was gorgeous and the river ran cold, with icicles hanging off the collapsed lava tube that makes this view of nature off Highway 62 part of the Southern Oregon's A-tour.

"It's always a beautiful place to stop on my trips to see if anything's changed," Williams says.

Yes, but is it $5 worth of beautiful?

"I wouldn't pay $5, no," she says. "I guess I wouldn't stop."

On the eve of the end of a public comment period, Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest visitors expressed mixed reactions Thursday to first-ever $5 visitor fees to the Rogue Gorge, Union Creek and Natural Bridge interpretive sites.

The proposed fees for these popular attractions join 54 other new or increased fees forest officials have proposed in order to raise an estimated $100,000 a year to fund upkeep and improvements at recreation sites saddled with stagnant budgets amid rising costs.

Rentals of High Cascades cabins could as much as quadruple, the cost for overnight stays at fire lookouts could rise, and day-use sites along the Illinois River are in line for $5 daily fees under what the Forest Service has billed as the first widespread fee change here in close to a decade.

Other first-ever day-use fees are proposed for Foster Bar, Quosatana Bar and Lobster Bar access points on the lower Rogue River near Agness, and the Oak Flat Campground and Bar along the Illinois River.

At targeted day-use areas, new pay stations would be erected in parking lots to collect the $5-per-vehicle fee. The fee technically is not a parking fee, but the cost of using amenities at these sites, and a parking place is considered an amenity.

That would mean a 5-minute bathroom visit to the Union Creek Interpretive Site would turn into a $5 pit stop for Fred Brue during his Thursday trip from his Cave Junction home to Idaho.

"I wouldn't pay $5 to go to the bathroom," Brue says. "But I'd pay a dollar."

Since the forest opened public comment in late January, the agency has collected about three dozen comments, mostly through its website. Comments also can be emailed to Rogue_River-Siskiyou_RecFee@fs.fed.us.

Comments will be collected through business hours Friday and forwarded to a forest advisory group.

To view the entire list of proposed fees, see http://bit.ly/2E4cgcm.

The daily fee would be waived for someone with a $30 annual Forest Service pass or an $80 multi-agency pass, according to the Forest Service. Violators face $50 tickets written by Forest Service law-enforcement officers or recreation technicians.

Those who park off-site and walk into places like the Rogue Gorge will not be charged. Also, the $5 covers all visits that day, so those who stop at Natural Bridge and the Rogue Gorge wouldn't be charged twice.

Comments to date have been split between support of the fees and dissent, with the most specific comments related to sites along the Highway 62 corridor, forest spokeswoman Chamise Kramer says.

Kramer says she expects more comments by the end of Friday.

"I know people are commenting on Facebook posts," Kramer says. "I hope they don't think that's a viable way to comment."

Comments will be presented in the spring to the Rogue-Umpqua Resource Advisory Committee in Roseburg and the Siskiyou Resource Advisory Committee in Brookings.

The forest is seeking more than just a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the proposal, Kramer says. Rather, they want to hear ideas on how to fund these facilities long-term, she says.

"This is the opportunity for people to weigh in, using their voices, to provide solutions," Kramer says. "That those proposed solutions can be taken forward to the resource advisory committees to help inform their recommendation is a really important part of this process."

Final recommendations will go to Jim Pena, the agency's Pacific Northwest regional forester, and any approved changes would go into effect for the summer recreation season, which typically starts Memorial Day weekend.

Under federal law, 95 percent of recreation fees go toward operating, maintaining and improving pay-to-visit sites.

The current annual budget is funded almost entirely by fees, forest officials have said. Non-fee day-use sites such as the gorge and Natural Bridge currently are funded with dedicated funds allocated by Congress.

Randy Lehman, a former Forest Service "Hot Shot" wildfire crew superintendent, says the forest should avoid fees to access improvements to public lands and let tax dollars pay for it.

"If Congress won't pay for it, close the doors," says Lehman, 57, of Prospect. "If no one screams at them, keep it closed."

Otherwise, he doesn't like the idea of paying to see the Rogue Gorge, or anything behind a paywall.

"I think it's ridiculous," Lehman says. "I'd park anywhere and walk to avoid them."

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Randy Lehman of Prospect says he wouldn't pay a $5 fee to visit the Rogue Gorge unless the Forest Service could prove the money was going to improvements at the site. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]
Visitors to the Rogue Gorge along the upper Rogue River may have to pay a $5 fee to enter the Forest Service site. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]