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$2 fee at Flaming Gorge isn't paying bills anymore

When Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area was established by Congress in 1968, the government had a different philosophy and a lot more federal money to spend on ambitious public recreation opportunities that weren't designed to make money.

During the budget deficit woes of the 1990s, there's a much different philosophy and reality - tax dollars aren't covering the tab. Buildings and infrastructure are 30 years old and in need of major repairs.Simply put, those who play within the 201,000 acres surrounding the 91-mile-long Flaming Gorge Reservoir in northeast Utah and southwest Wyoming are going to have to pay more.

Dave Bull, district ranger for the Flaming Gorge Ranger District, wants the public to provide suggestions they would be willing to support when it comes to dealing with "the severe financial pinch" experienced at Flaming Gorge.

It's been almost a year since a use fee was implemented at Flaming Gorge on a test basis, but the $2 daily vehicle fee isn't paying the bills.

"We need to make our case to folks; the fee isn't cutting it. We've got to come up with long-range plans," Bull said.

Federal funding for Flaming Gorge plummeted by 60 percent in the past four years to stand at $1.1 million this year. The permanent work force has dropped from 41 employees in 1991 to 20.

How much you pay, or if you're willing to pay anything at all to use facilities at Flaming Gorge seems to depend on where you live.

Fifty-seven people attended a public hearing recently week in Green River, Wyo. The consensus was that users shouldn't be required to pay fees at a place built with their tax dollars.

But a dozen people who attended a public hearing in Salt Lake City agreed that new fees should be implemented and more private sector involvement sought to help manage the highly developed recreational areas at the Gorge, said Bull.

During a public hearing in Vernal Thursday night, which four people attended, it was agreed that any user fee system must be "customer friendly."

"When a traveler comes in, he doesn't want to get hit with a fee every time he gets out of the car," said one man. The development of a "universal parking pass" would be one method of holding down the number of access fees. The revenue raised that way could be split among the various facilities.

"There's a lot of complexity when we start talking about this whole fee structure . . . it would be nice if we could come up with some type of one-stop shopping," Bull commented.

Closing sites that are under-utilized during the week, opening them only on major weekends, was another suggestion for saving money.

One common sentiment expressed at the public meetings was that users definitely don't want Flaming Gorge to turn into another Lake Powell.

Right now there are only two concessionaires at Flaming Gorge, and no fees are charged at several campgrounds, but Bull said a new prospectus takes a look at opening up more campgrounds for bid.

Public and private ventures are also being considered for other facilities within Flaming Gorge.

Along with use fees, there is a need to attract more volunteers and pursue grants more aggressively in order to improve the revenue outlook for the Gorge, said Bull, adding that these strategies alone are not the entire solution.

All use fees, grants, and some of the revenue generated by concessionaires at Flaming Gorge will be used for on-site improvements. All other receipts, however, must be deposited in the General Treasury where it is allocated to the U.S. Forest Service, which in turn decides how much money they will spend "out in the field," he said.