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WOULD AN ENTRANCE FEE FREE CANYON OF LITTER?

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Visit Mill Creek Canyon this week and you'll find disposable diapers wedged in tree branches, cans and paper cups floating in the stream and outhouses covered with graffiti - all amid the glittering ground cover of broken glass and bottle tops.

Welcome to one of the four most heavily visited national forest system recreation areas in the United States.A proposal to make access to the canyon subject to a fee would make the canyon one of only three Forest Service locations where visitors have to pay just to gain entrance.

Too much use, not enough money

The proposed fee, officials hope, would bridge the gap between a declining Forest Service budget and the increasing backlog of needed maintenance created by the 700,000 visitors who drive, bike and walk into the canyon each year.

The absence of trash containers in the canyon compounds the litter problem, but Wasatch-Cache's Recreational Forester Jim White said the Forest Service hopes to educate users so the canyon can remain a pack-in, pack-out recreation area.

White said an interagency team would be formed to set rehabilitation priorities and decide how much of the proposed fee would go toward each canyon project.

How the proposal would work

In a nutshell, canyon visitors would be charged a fee, probably $2 per vehicle, with the money being used specifically to rehabilitate Mill Creek Canyon's 161 picnic sites, 10 trail heads, roads and the eroded stream banks. People who visit the canyon frequently could also buy an annual pass.

Salt Lake County officials play an integral part of the toll plan because the county would be the collecting agent. Fees collected directly by the Forest Service are returned to Washington and cannot be retained for use in an individual recreation area. White said the Mill Creek proposal is an adaptation of two other Forest Service areas where fees are collected by the resident county: one is at San Gabriel Canyon north of Los Angeles, and the other is at Pike's Peak, White said.

But is it legal?

The county attorney's office is still exploring the legalities of having county Parks and Recreation employees collect a fee on Forest Service property and then return it to the Forest Service. And the County Commission, which would give final county approval on participation, is scheduled to visit the canyon May 1.

County senior planner Cal Schneller said the details of the plan may come later. "Our main effort is to get the program going, not over controversialize it" with from the start with mitigating complexities.

Widespread support?

A number of interested parties have been tracking the fee proposal and claim it has broad acceptance. After two public hearings and the mailing of 1,000 query letters, White said support is running at 72 to 75 percent. "Most of the time people just write who are against it. But we actually got thank-you cards."

Dean Himmelman, co-owner of the Millcreek Inn, one of two businesses in the canyon, has tracked the proposal closely, and believes the access fee is a good idea. "I do believe the canyon is completely overused, and I would like to see people pay for it."

Himmelman is also one of several people involved in the proposal who believes the toll gate should be right at the mouth of the canyon, not on the uphill side of Camp Tracy. "If they're going to put a collection booth in the canyon to take care of the canyon they need to put it at the bottom." Otherwise users who don't want to pay the fee will congest the bottom two miles of the canyon, he said.

"There is a lot of nice, historic property in the first two miles (of the canyon) that also needs to be refurbished," he said.

Ernest Seko, who lives near the canyon and said he hikes there daily, told the County Commission in a letter he believes the toll booth should be at the canyon mouth to dissuade would-be trash and grass clippings dumpers.

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(Additional information)

To fee or not

Main points still to be decided if the fee proposal is approved:

-Whether a fee would be charged by vehicle or by person, and whether pedestrians and bicycle riders would be charged. The likely choice is a $2 fee per vehicle with an annual pass available for frequent visitors.

- Whether to place the toll booth at the mouth of the canyon, at 3800 S. 3700 East, or 2 1/2 miles east on the uphill side of the Boy Scout's Camp Tracy.

-Whether to charge cabin owners, restaurant patrons and Scouts, all of whom likely will be exempt from the fee.