Study shows public land user fees leave low-income citizens feeling priced out

Sunday , July 16, 2017 - 12:00 AM9 comments

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

Imposing fees at public lands — like those looming for Pineview Reservoir — could dissuade low-income residents from recreating. 

Research conducted by the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism at Utah State University revealed the impacts fees on national forests can have. A survey of people using various sites in the Central Wasatch Mountains found even nominal fees, like the $3 charged to use Millcreek Canyon, dissuade many users.

“Even though (a fee) is pretty small and marginal relative to what people are spending to participate in outdoor recreation, it has a psychological effect, particularly on those with low income,” said Jordan Smith, director of the institute.

He co-authored a paper with the research results, published this week in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning

The study found that many low-income public land users — those earning less than $25,000 — will drive up to three times farther to avoid fees, even when travel costs considerably more. 

The institute surveyed visitors to the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest in areas around Salt Lake City and Park City. The findings, however, are still relevant to other urban centers near public lands, like Ogden and Logan, Smith said.

Fees are just another factor that leave low-income and minority groups shut out of outdoor recreation and public lands, he added.

“It’s a pattern we see at the institute … when we gather data from the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache (National Forest) generally,” he said. “We tend to see that incomes are higher and ethnic diversity is not as diverse compared to the surrounding population.”


Pineview Reservoir is a short drive and popular recreation site for those living in Ogden. Certain access points along the reservoir, like Anderson Cove and Cemetery Point, are managed by a concessionaire. They charge visitors between $13 and $16 for day use.

Weber County and the U.S. Forest Service plan to impose parking fees at three sites along the reservoir that currently provide free access — Windsurfer Beach, Pelican Beach and the North Arm trailhead — to help grapple with overcrowding an”d litter. 

RELATEDParking fees coming soon to areas around Pineview Reservoir

But Smith said his study suggests coming fees to the site could mean many members of the community feel excluded. Around 28 percent of Ogden households make less than $25,000, according to U.S. Census data.

“We have some data that actually show when we start to charge fee for those sites, a good portion of the population feels like they can’t participate anymore,” Smith said. “That has some big ramifications for what that agency (the U.S. Forest Service), which manages land for the public good ... is providing to its constituents.”

The solution, he said, is making sure the U.S. Forest Service still maintains fee-free areas throughout the forest, even as they grapple with a growing urban population nearby.

RELATEDNew open swim area coming to Pineview Reservoir

The debate about fees on public lands isn’t new. Fees have long stoked the ire of those living in Utah and beyond, who view it as a double-charge or requirement to “pay twice,” the study notes, since taxes fund the U.S. Forest Service.

“There’s an open-access ethos in the West that it should be open and free to use,” Smith said. “But in reality, a lot of those fees go back to direct management of those specific sites.”

Lawmakers keep tightening public land agencies’ budgets. Funds allocated to the U.S. Forest Service in particular are increasingly diverted to wildland fires

Day use and overnight fees at public lands are often the solution. The fees stay local and are used to improve the specific sites where they’re required.

“They’re important that way. With the forest service budgets the way they are right now, we don’t have funds or capacity to maintain our facilities,” said Ogden District Ranger Sean Harwood.

The forest service uses fees to maintain campgrounds, toilets, fences, parking areas and information boards. At Pineveiw Reservoir specifically, they’ll mostly be used for Weber County to conduct law enforcement.

“Pineview is a high-use area,” Harwood said. “We don’t have enough enforcement on the district, so we have to partner with Weber County and Weber County Sheriff. It costs money to have those guys help us out.”

Although Pineview Reservoir is part of land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Weber County will collect the parking fees. The funds will also be used to maintain parking areas — repairing pavement, maintaining restrooms and adding fencing, Harwood said.

Weber County and the U.S. Forest Service haven’t determined how much they’ll charge for the parking fees.

“It’s not going to happen this season for sure, we don’t have infrastructure in place,” he said. “It will be minimal.”

There are also long-term plans for parking fees at Causey Reservoir, but Harwood said he doesn’t think the future fees will impact low-income individuals from Ogden and nearby areas in the county.

“What we’ve found is a lot of people who come to Pineveiw aren’t from Ogden, they come from the Salt Lake area,” he said. “I don’t see it as a deterrent. It’s something I feel is necessary. We absolutely can’t keep up with the issues that are at Pineview without some type of help — partnering with the county is going to be good for everybody.”

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or Follow her on or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.

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