A proposal to make access to Mill Creek Canyon subject to a $2 fee seems poised for defeat when it goes to the Salt Lake County Commission at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Without a fee to cover maintenance costs and repair vandalism, some picnic areas in the canyon may have to be closed, according to Wasatch-Cache National Forest Supervisor Susan Giannettino.Forest Service officials want the county to collect $2 for each car that enters the canyon, with the exception of restaurant patrons, cabin owners and Boy Scout camp visitors. The fee would then be turned back to the Forest Service for use in rehabilitating picnic facilities, trails and eroded stream banks in the canyon, which sees more than 700,000 visitors each year.
The fee is proposed for a four-month trial basis.
But Commissioners M. Tom Shimizu and Bart Barker are leery of the proposal and the liability it would bring to the county. Only Commission Chairman Michael Stewart supports the plan as it is currently outlined.
The county's involvement is needed, according to the Forest Service, because fees it collects directly must all be returned to the federal treasury for appropriation by Congress. None can be kept for local use, and the Forest Service's maintenance budget for the canyon is only $3,000 this year while the maintenance backlog ranges in the millions of dollars.
Both Barker and Shimizu would like to see the Forest Service find a way to collect the fees itself. Shimizu said Monday he plans to approach the state's congressional delegation to solicit their help in working with the Department of Agriculture on the issue.
But Giannettino told the commission Monday that the federal government has already established mechanisms to raise and retain funds for local use. That mechanism, she said, is reflected in the partnership the Forest Service is pursuing with the county.
The Forest Service already has federal-local relationships with the Utah Department of Transportation and with special-use permit holders like area ski resorts, Giannettino said.
Barker said the difference between the county's request and that of other Forest Service special-permit users is that the county is being asked to fill a role the Forest Service couldn't do on its own.
Stewart said facilities in the canyon are in such bad repair that they embarrass both the county and the Forest Service. He asked Giannettino what would happen if an agreement cannot be reached.
The worst-case scenario, she said, would find the Forest Service closing picnic areas in the canyon that it cannot afford to maintain. "That's an option we really don't like to spend a lot of time thinking about because it doesn't provide a public service, and it's not favorable politically," she said.
Another option would be for the Forest Service to turn the canyon over to a private concessionaire, which would cost more than the plan to involve county government because the concessionaire would want to make a profit for its work.
A more likely alternative, which Forest Service officials brought with them to the meeting with commissioners, is a plan to charge canyon visitors only for parking. Visitors who only want to drive through the canyon would be charged nothing.
Salt Lake County Commission candidate Randy Horiuchi announced Monday he supports the Forest Service plan or the alternative. Horiuchi, a Democrat running against Republican Commissioner Shimizu, said he supports the four-month trial period for the fee and favors locating a toll gate below the Tracy Wigwam Boy Scout camp and would like to see the entrance fee suspended on holidays to ease the flow of heavy traffic in the canyon.
Salt Lake District Ranger Michael Sieg said the parking fee alternative may be more acceptable to the public, but he still feels the current proposal is the best overall.
Sieg said Shimizu would have better success approaching Congress after trying the fee program for the summer. "It's better to take a success story to Congress than a vague problem."
"Or they may say `Well, you've solved the problem, you don't need our help,' " Barker said of Sieg's suggestion to try the fee first and Congress second.