The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Utah State Office announced in a press release on Sept. 20 that they have approved final recreation business plans for five field offices across the state.
According to the business plan for the BLM’s Moab Field Office, the nightly individual campsite fee in its service area will increase from $15 to $20; the nightly group site fee will increase from $4 to $5 per person. Group campsites have a minimum group size of 15 people.
The fee changes go into effect on Oct. 1.
The Moab Field Office business plan is prefaced by a statement from Moab Field Manager Christina Price.
She wrote, “The fee increase is necessary in order to meet the growing expenses of the campground program, especially those for both regular and deferred maintenance. Until now, the campground fee structure has never fully considered the replacement costs of the campground infrastructure. … Last year, revenues for the fee campgrounds were $994,000, while expenses totaled $1,192,000.”
The business plan states that it is designed to meet the criteria defined in the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, which provides the BLM with the authority to collect an Expanded Amenity Recreation Fee for the use of areas with certain requisite amenities, and outlines how those revenues are to be reinvested to provide visitor services, such as trails, picnic tables, and restroom facilities, at the site where the fees were collected.
The revenues can also be used for the construction of new campground facilities.
Each of the existing campgrounds have the amenities to qualify as a fee site — toilets, picnic tables, fire rings, tent and trailer spaces, access roads, collection of fees by an employee, reasonable visitor protection and garbage collection — as will the new campsites.
And, according to the Business Plan, there are currently 2 fee campsites in the Moab Field Office, including Goose Island Campground on the Colorado River Scenic Byway, Kings Bottom on Kane Creek Road, Horsethief Campground on the Dead Horse Point Scenic Byway, and the Ken’s Lake Campground.
There are plans for eight new fee sites to be constructed, and for four existing sites to have requisite amenities added and become fee sites.
New campground sites include North Klondike and Mineral Bottom Road; existing campgrounds that will become fee sites include Hideout and Cowskin.
Jennifer Jones, the assistant field manager for BLM Moab Field Office, said that the majority of the revenues raised by the fee increases will not go to constructing the new campgrounds, but to maintaining the existing ones.
“We have over $1 million in backlogged maintenance,” she said, noting that the Moab Field Office saw visitation increase from 1.5 million visitors in 2007 to 2.5 million in 2016. “We’re busy here. Wear and tear is expected.”
Jones also said that the new campgrounds will be located in areas that are experiencing resource damage due to a high demand for camping without facilities to accommodate visitors.
Jones also noted that the entire Moab Field Office business plan is online and available to the public.
“Everyone can see what these programs cost and how the revenue is spent,” she said. “It’s a very public process.”
As part of that public process, the Moab Field Office’s draft business plan was submitted for public comment in April of this year.
“We received six commenter’s comments,” Jones said. “Of that, two expressed full support for the fee increase. The Western Slope No-Fee Coalition objected to the additional new campgrounds that were proposed in the plan, and one private commenter echoed that objection. One commenter commented that the fee increase should apply to only non-Utah residents. One commenter asked that the fee increase be phased one dollar over five years, which isn’t realistic for us due to all the signs and whatnot that go with fee changes.”
Jones also said that less than eight percent of the 1.8 million acres BLM land managed by the Moab field office requires campers to use developed campgrounds or designated dispersed sights, so there are still many opportunities for dispersed (non-campground) camping, which does not involve a fee.
“The Moab Field Office presented the campground fee increase proposal to the BLM Utah
Recreation Resource Advisory Council (RAC) for its formal review on May 22, after
publishing a notice in the Federal Register Notice 30 days in advance of the meeting,” Jones said. “The Utah RAC is a 15-member advisory panel which provides advice and recommendations to the BLM on resource and land management issues for 22.9 million acres of public lands in Utah. Comments from both the public at large and the BLM Utah RAC were considered prior to approval of the increase in the Moab BLM campground fee.”
Ken Francis, a retiree and resident of Durango, Colorado, recently camped at Goose Island Campground.
“I come to Southeast Utah in the fall and spring,” Francis said, adding that he usually stays in his camper and uses federal or state campsites.
“I’m not opposed to modest fee increases,” Francis said. “But, for many families, or low- and moderate-income people, these just add to the significant increases we’ve seen in parks’ entrance fees.”
Francis said he believes the federal government could easily cover maintenance costs, rather than putting the burden on individual users.
“We should budget more money through the federal budget to take care of these lands that are so important and owned by everyone in these United States,” he said. “But instead we have trillions of dollars in tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy, and then charge more for lands owned by the public.”
Jones said that she does not expect the fee increases to have much effect on the public.
“I don’t foresee it having much impact,” she said. “We’re still the least expensive camping opportunity anywhere around, especially for the services we provide, the cleanliness and the upkeep. The hope is we get more of our deferred maintenance tackled.”
A list of non-BLM campgrounds, both public and private, and their prices is included in the business plan.
Sherri Constanza, a resident of Moab, said she wasn’t sure how she felt about the new fees and construction of new facilities.
“If the monies are going to benefit the land, then yes, I’m okay with that,” Constanza said. “It’s a shame to see another bathroom, more ‘improvements’ in places where you’d like it to be more natural. But there’s nothing worse than seeing somebody’s [waste].”
Potentially, another user fee could eventually be imposed on federal campsites.
The Moab Area Travel Council Advisory Board has on several occasions discussed collecting Transient Room Tax (TRT) from federal campsites, according to Moab Area Travel Council Executive Director Elaine Gizler.
“We have had this discussion for a couple of years,” Gizler said.
Moab Area Travel Council Advisory Board Chair Howard Trenholme said that he thinks it is something for the Grand County Council to explore.
“This is another means of collection we should be looking at,” Trenholme said. “Hopefully, we utilize their legislative power to start the conversation.”
Grand County Council member Curtis Wells said that, while he is not opposed to TRT being collected from federal campsites, he believes a higher priority should be reforming how the federal government compensates local governments for the federal lands within the county’s boundaries. These compensation monies are known as Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PiLT).
Wells said that PiLT payments are not currently mandatory, and that he recently participated in a National Association of Counties trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with federal lawmakers and “urge them to fund PiLT for 2019, and for a long term adjustment that will make those payments mandatory, and will make them more equitable to what property taxes should be.”
He said that PiLT funding is so much less than what counties would be collecting if those same lands were held privately and paying private property taxes that there is different meaning for the PiLT acronym: “Pennies in Lieu of Trillions.”
“If they paid market value of the properties to the counties, we’d have the funds to manage the growth of tourism in our community,” Wells said. “We wouldn’t be squabbling over TRT and property and sales taxes.”
Wells said that PiLT reform has bipartisan support, including that of U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Rob Bishop.
“It’s just a matter of educating reps from the East that this isn’t Western welfare,” he said. “We have an agreement for them to compensate the counties, they need to honor it.”
Amid increased visitation, maintenance expenses have soared past revenues; Officials see other possible revenue streams
“We have over a million dollars in backlogged maintenance.”
What: Fee increase at BLM campsites in the Moab area
When: Oct. 1
Where: BLM Moab Field Office
Cost: Individual campsites $20; group sites $5 per person
Contact: Call the BLM Field Office at 435-259-2100
To see the full business plans online, visit blm.gov/programs/recreation/permits-and-fees/business-plans