Jose Portillo had a $5 bill in hand as he pulled into Jordanelle Reservoir for a recent afternoon of fishing with his two children.
The Utah State Parks and Recreation fee booth attendant told him he'd need four more dollars. Portillo blanched, but his children wanted to fish, so he paid the fee.
"I think it's too much money," said the West Jordan man, who works two jobs to support his family.
Popular Jordanelle above picturesque Heber Valley is one of the jewels in the Utah State Parks system, a shimmering aquatic paradise for boaters, fishermen and swimmers.
And at $9 per vehicle just to drive through the gate, one of the most expensive.
As Labor Day weekend winds down the summer travel season, fees to visit Utah's abundant recreational, natural, cultural and historical attractions are going up. With the increases come practical questions about how much is too much and philosophical questions about access to public lands.
"That's always a challenge," said Dave Palazzolo, Uinta National Forest spokesman.The upward trend in fees is widespread:
Arches and Canyonlands national parks in southeastern Utah intend to double their entrance fees to $20 starting next January.
Hovenweep and Natural Bridges national monuments in the same area will go from $6 per vehicle to $10 and $15, respectively.
Visitors to Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks began paying $25 per vehicle this past January, a $5 increase.
The Utah State Division of Parks and Recreation intends to raise day-use fees $1 to $3 at 17 of its sites beginning in January.
National forest officials are proposing to double the $3 fee to enter American Fork Canyon and to traverse the Mirror Lake Highway, two of Utah's most popular recreation areas. Day-use fees at Flaming Gorge could go from $2 to $5.
With costs around the state shooting up, the question arises: Are state and federal parks pricing people out of recreational opportunities?
"That's a good question," said Larry Velarde, recreation officer at the Pleasant Grove Ranger District. "I think in some cases we probably are."
Velarde said he understands both sides of the issue. As a Forest Service worker he sees the need to maintain and improve facilities in the face of scaled-back budget. As a taxpayer, he, too, wonders where the money goes.
Paul Henderson, National Parks Service spokesman in southeastern Utah, said the question comes up a lot. But Parks Service officials don't believe it keeps visitors away.
"If you can afford the gas to get to Canyonlands, you can afford the entrance fee," he said.
For some, however, it's not a question of price but principle. They resent having to open their wallets for access to public land, figuring they've already paid with their tax dollars.
"I think Americans are entirely justified in wondering why it is they have to pay twice," said Mark Clemens, manager of the Sierra Club's Utah chapter. "I can certainly sympathize with them."
The Sierra Club does not oppose national park entrance fees and even supports increases as long as the money stays in the park and isn't used to compensate for budget reductions, he said. It does not have a position on state park fees.
The club does, however, consider paying for access to public land outside national parks "insidious."
"We view that as kind of the heritage of all Americans whatever their income level," he said.
The National Park Service a couple years ago hired a consulting firm to help it standardize fees for the nation's 390 national parks. The result is a tiered system where entrance fees reflect size and popularity of the park.
Tom Haraden, Zion National Park assistant chief, said the first comment from a visitor on the day the fee went up was, "It's about time."
People who value national parks don't have a problem with the price, he said.
Still, that doesn't keep some from complaining. "We even get folks who say it's not constitutional," Haraden said.
Capitol Reef National Park considered earlier this year doubling the fee to drive its scenic highway to $10. Visitors can explore about 90 percent of the park for free. Superintendent Al Hendricks didn't want to make the drive through multicolored cliffs more exclusive and requested it remain $5. He is awaiting approval from Washington.
"My concern is if we raise it to $10, people would just choose not to go there. I don't want that to happen," he said.
Proposed hikes in fees to national parks are considered at the local, regional and national levels. Public comment periods usually draw little attention. Fewer than 50 people responded earlier this year in Arches and Canyonlands. Capitol Reef received only two both opposing an increase.
The voice of the people can apparently put off a fee increase, at least temporarily. Golden Spike National Historic Site was poised to charge $10 per vehicle next year, a $3 increase. But operations chief Tammy Benson said a visitor survey found the current fee about right. Based on those results, she said, the Park Service will wait a year.
Recreational opportunities abound in Utah, whether it be wakeboarding on a reservoir, hiking to a natural bridge, visiting an Old West museum or touring ancient American Indian ruins. Federal or state government agencies manage most of the sites.
Utah boasts 43 state parks, six national monuments, six national forests, five national parks and a smattering of Bureau of Land Management recreational and historical sites.
The Utah Division of State Parks and Recreation sets fees according to popularity. Visitors to places like Jordanelle and Antelope Island pay three or four times as much as those heading to the Territorial Statehouse in Fillmore or the Edge of the Cedars museum in Blanding.
The practice of setting fees based on market demand began in the mid-1990s and was reiterated when the Legislature asked the state parks division to operate like a business.
"It makes good business sense to base a fee on market demand. As always, it is still a delicate balance of managing fees and determining what is the point of diminishing return," said Mary Tullius, Utah State Parks and Recreation director.
The state parks and recreation board last month voted to raise day-use, camping and boat-mooring fees at several locations, pending public comment and administrative approval. Annual passes would go up $5 to $75. Pedestrian and bicycle fees for Antelope Island and Dead Horse Point will be lowered.
Parks and recreation officials look at facilities available, the cost to operate those facilities, return on the investment and the numbers and types of users.
Tullius says day-use and camping fees aren't exorbitant.
"We just don't seem to have a lot of buyer resistance," she said.
But state parks fees sometimes catch visitors unaware.
"I was kind of surprised it was so much, to be honest," said Brad Wright, during a day of picnicking and swimming at Jordanelle with his wife and their five children, ages 10 to 16 months.
And the fee went up to $10 a couple of weeks later.
Wright, of Washington Terrace, said the extra dollar probably won't keep his family away from the reservoirs. But, added his wife Jo, "it doesn't mean we won't gripe about it as we pull in."
Sandy resident Steve Lundgren paid $9 at Jordanelle for a day of wave running with his family.
"I don't personally have a problem with it. I was surprised it was that high. But I was OK with it," he said, noting a movie ticket runs $7.50 a person. "I don't think it's out of line, really."
Anton Bercich of Highland bought his boat a couple of weeks ago and has already been out five or six times. The $9 fee at Deer Creek doesn't bother him at all. In fact, he finds it a bargain compared to Southern California, from which he moved two years ago.
"I think that's the best bang for the buck," he said after launching his boat, carrying his wife and three children, ages 5 to 11.
Scott W. Parson, state parks and recreation board chairman, said the board is very concerned about setting fees so as to maximize public access while using them to balance supply and demand.
It is exploring setting lower entrance fees at water-based parks to make them less expensive for non-boaters, such as families that want to swim, picnic, fish from the shore or bird-watch.
A few years ago, legislators reasoning that people, not cars, visit state parks, discussed charging per person rather than per vehicle. Parks officials opposed the idea because they believed it would discourage people, especially families, from patronizing the parks.
The division at one point charged a per-head fee at some of its sites but was hit with a barrage of complaints.
"I think the way we do it now is more family friendly," Tullius said.
Utah charges more to enter state parks than surrounding states, except Arizona, where daily vehicle fees range from $3 to $10.
Colorado parks charge no more than $7, with most at $6. Idaho has a flat rate of $4 for all of its parks. Wyoming charges residents $2 and nonresidents $4 to enter its state parks. Some, including Hot Springs State Park, charge nothing, even for visitors who want to soak in the 104-degree natural tubs.
Montana residents pay nothing when visiting state parks in that state. An optional $4 registration fee on light vehicles subsidizes the free entry. The state does charge for camping and fishing access.
National parks, state parks and national forests struggle with thin budgets and long to-do lists to maintain deteriorating facilities.
"They're aging and definitely need some attention," Tullius said of state facilities. "We have a lot of critical needs."
The Legislature allocated $2 million to its state parks division last year, $800,000 of which will be spent to upgrade restrooms.
State parks administrators are in the midst of doing an inventory of all parks' maintenance and renovation needs. The tab has hit $105 million, and Tullius expects it will top out at $200 million. Tullius has no delusions about the Legislature coming up with that kind of money.
The National Park Service also has an ambitious plan to upgrade its parks, but it would rely heavily on private donations. It unveiled a plan a week ago to leverage tax dollars with philanthropists' money through a matching grant program. Of the 201 proposed projects totaling $369.9 million nationwide, three are in Utah, at Zion, Glen Canyon and Cedar Breaks.
American Fork Canyon, Flaming Gorge and Mirror Lake Highway are the only U.S. Forest Service areas in the state that charge admission, if you will.
Drivers pay $3 to enter American Fork Canyon, which connects with Provo Canyon via the Alpine Loop. It is one of the most-used recreational canyons in the state, with 335,000 cars and 1.2 million visitors annually.
The national forests instituted the federal "Fee Demonstration Project" in 1997 to upgrade campgrounds, trails, restrooms and parking lots. Congress has since made the fees permanent through the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act.
"Without it, I don't think we'd survive," Velarde said. "The cost of everything increases as we all know, so we've just fallen behind the eight ball a little bit."
David Ream, Kamas Ranger District recreation manager, said the Mirror Lake area would be "in a world of hurt" without what is now called a "recreation enhancement fee."
"We try to get as much money to the ground as we can," he said, and he means that literally.
"We spend a lot of time cleaning up garbage," he said. "We have a lot of people who don't treat their national forest too well."
With federal funds riding on the whim of the current presidential administration, public land bosses have had to search for steady money streams to rebuild aging water lines, sewer lines and restrooms.27 comments on this story
"We need a lot of these unsexy things," said Zion's Haraden, noting 80 percent of the fees stay in the park.
And Zion makes sure park visitors know that. It post signs at its projects that read, "Your entrance fees at work."
"When people know the money stays in the park, and we can show people what we use it for, people like that," he said.Without the American Fork Canyon entrance fee, Palazzolo said, routine repairs and cleaning would fall to the "deferred maintenance" plan government-speak for "we'll do it when we can."