Would You Pay to Hike?

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Reprinted from the Adventure Journal:

As Wyoming considers first-of-its-kind fee for hiking, we wonder: Would you mind paying to maintain trails?

Wyoming state lawmakers are considering a first-of-its-kind fundraising measure: Charge hikers, bikers, horseback riders, and others for using trails. At least one prominent outdoor recreation user group is on board.

A mandatory $10 annual permit fee paid by users of non-motorized, “natural-surface” trails would support public-land trail systems across Wyoming, advocates told lawmakers eyeing a draft trail-fee bill.

The bill could raise $1 million a year for Wyoming trails, even those trails on federal lands, according to information presented to the Legislature’s Travel Recreation Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee. As a draft bill is re-worked, backers say Wyoming outdoorswomen and -men who enjoy non-motorized trails are not opposed to paying a fee that would support creation and maintenance of recreational routes — the same way snowmobilers and ATV riders contribute funds through machine permits.

Today, “there’s no funding for non-motorized trails,” Domenic Bravo, the administrator of the Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Office, said in an interview. Trail users have mixed feelings about a fee, however.

“Some are very bought-in,” Bravo said. “For others, just the idea of paying a fee to use a trail is concerning.”

Tim Young, the executive director of Wyoming Pathways who testified before the committee in Evanston, Wyoming, last month, said the fee is “an opportunity to improve our livability in our communities.”

He outlined the lack of public funds and trail crews needed to keep up with use. Federal agencies are cash-strapped, Young said. They have massive trail-maintenance backlogs with as much as three-quarters of Forest Service trails in disrepair, he said. Public agencies have been unable to plan for the non-motorized trails that are in demand by equestrians, mountain bike riders, hikers, runners, and others.

“Many of them [national forests] have lost their trail crews, their trails supervisors,” Young told the committee. The Bureau of Land Management “can’t even give us a list of the entire trails in Wyoming.”

“The need is pretty dramatic,” Young said. “The [funding] hole is so big I’m going to support this.”

The draft bill says that any adult that uses a “designated” non-motorized trail in Wyoming “shall annually obtain a non-motorized recreational trail permit,” costing $10. The bill would create an account to be operated by the Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources, which would designate trails in the system and furnish numbered permits. Permits wouldn’t be required where other fees, like parking or parks admission, are already in place.

The bill would allow individual users and user groups to document volunteer trail maintenance or work time in exchange for a permit.

The bill would apply to and support “natural-surface trails,” only, not paved paths and sidewalks.

People shouldn’t worry about potential path police Bravo said. “We didn’t even think about the penalty,” Bravo said. “We’re not going to sit there and hire a bunch of park rangers.”

Instead, Bravo believes marketing could convince people, even tourists, to pay the $10 “because it means something.”

The volunteering element of the bill is “critical,” Bravo said, but it alone can’t provide for the system of trails Wyoming needs. “You still need cash,” he said.

If adopted, the bill could be the first of its kind nationwide, Young said. “I don’t believe any other state has a mandatory fee. Wyoming would be pioneering a new approach of how to take care of its public trails. This would be the first person-based, non–motorized trail fee in the country.”

A provision in the draft to divert 10 percent of the revenue raised to the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust Account has drawn fire. Critics instead want to provide a way to make a contribution to that account voluntary.

Trail users have shown they’re willing to pony up for well-maintained routes, said Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna), a member of the committee considering the bill. While she’s generally skeptical of increasing taxes and fees, “I cannot say I have never voted for a fee increase,” she said in an interview.

When officials proposed to boost snowmobile fees, “I heard from 16,000 snowmobilers from around the state,” Halverson said; “Please raise the fee.”

“It was all going to trail grooming,” Halverson said. “I know the users are willing to contribute to trails and maintenance.”

But while trail-users — even those using non-motorized trails — may be willing to pony up, “I don’t think they should be the only ones,” Halverson said. “I have already heard from folks who say there’s no reason for Wyoming or Wyomingites to be subsidizing trail work on public land.

“I take that to heart that just because the Medicine Bow National Forest doesn’t have a trail crew doesn’t mean that Wyoming should be paying for trails,” she said.

“So, I’m getting some push-back from my constituents. They want the U.S. Forest Service to pay something. There is ample opportunity for the Forest Service to take advantage of the resource to raise the funds necessary to meet the demands of the outdoor recreationalists in this state — and the visitors.”

Young sees it slightly differently. “Congress and the Forest Service should be providing much better funding for our trail system,” he said. “Congress has not done its job.” Nevertheless, the bill should be revised to require a federal matching grant, Young wrote in remarks to the committee.

Regardless of any failed responsibility, Wyoming Pathways partnered with the Shoshone National Forest to create the new Upper Brewers Trail near Lander, Wyoming, and with the Medicine Bow National Forest to rebuild damaged trails on Pole Mountain between Laramie and Cheyenne, Young wrote the committee. In all, the projects constructed about 6 miles of trails and cost $220,000, much of it funded privately through grants and aided by significant volunteer work, his Aug. 30 letter read.

In Jackson Hole, trail advocates kick in $350,000 a year in cash and volunteer value, he said. Evanston’s Bear River Outdoor Recreation Alliance aids the Forest Service and Evanston Parks and Recreation District with Nordic skiing, mountain biking, hiking, river, and equestrian use around Uinta County. In the Cody area, Young said, Park County Pedalers, best known for their mountain bike trails, have invested $400,000 in a trail network on city and BLM land.

Non-motorized trail users could leverage their funds and fundraising in a heretofore-blocked avenue if they begin paying fees, Young said. By contributing financially to trail maintenance, non-motorized trail users could strengthen their arguments when seeking a share of the federal trail funds distributed to Wyoming.

The federal Recreational Trails Program funds trail work through the Wyoming State Trails Advisory Council. Since 2013 Young has complained that the state council “unfairly restricts” money that the federal government earmarks for “diversified trails” — meaning those for several different user types. Federal guidelines allow the funds to be spent on a non-motorized “diversified trail,” such as trail for skiing, hiking, and fat-biking. But the Wyoming council, by policy, spends the funds only on trails that include a motorized component.

“Wyoming is the only state in the nation that requires motorized use in all diversified projects” Young wrote the trails council in 2015. The rule is “an unfair bias against non-motorized projects,” he wrote. “This unnecessary requirement is in conflict with the clear language of the federal law and should be removed.”

For Outdoor Office chief Bravo, a trail fee “would definitely open the door for those … conversations,” with the trails council. “If everybody is paying into the process, it’s easier to get fair balance in the programs,” he said.

Reprinted from the Adventure Journal.