Fees keep low-income families away from outdoor places like Bridal Veil Falls, researchers say

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A developer eyeing Bridal Veil Falls for a new streetcar and private drug lodge says he wants to make the iconic Utah County site more accessible to the public, with a “reasonable” rate. But those looking for outdoor recreation have found that a fee, no matter how small, can deter people from visiting.

A 2017 study by the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism at Utah State University found that some visitors to the Wasatch-Uinta-Cache National Forest go to great lengths to avoid the fee, sometimes spending more gas on go to free places. Even marginal fees like the $ 5 charged to visit Mill Creek Canyon can be a deterrent, especially for those with low incomes.

“There is a psychological effect in having to open your wallet and pay a fee,” said Jordan Smith, director of the institute and co-author of the study. “What we saw was that people who made less than $ 25,000 a year were much less likely to use Mill Creek Canyon. The only unique difference with this canyon when comparing with recreational use [they ultimately chose] is the price.

Richard Losee, owner of the posh Cirque Lodge treatment clinic, worked quietly with Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee on his vision to add a rehab clinic to the top of Bridal Veil Falls and a cable car to the connect. Losee said he would allow members of the public to use the streetcar during the summer tourist months for an unspecified price. Visitors could still view the falls from county-owned land at the bottom without paying.

[RELATED: The fate of Bridal Veil Falls at a crossroads: Preserved as public space or sold off to a developer?]

But Jocelyn Wikle, a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, said that simply associating falls with an expense might be enough to deter low-income families.

“It’s not just the dollars the person pays, it’s the overall, welcoming atmosphere of the site that is important when people decide where to recreate,” Wikle said. “Having this high-end population, knowing who they will go to, could be a deterrent for families who don’t have the money to take the tram.”

The professor published research this year, which included a case study of people visiting Arches National Park on free days versus paid days. Analyzing the webcams at the entrance to the park, Wikle found that the cars going to the park on paid days were newer and included more expensive foreign models.

The findings add to a growing body of evidence that economically disadvantaged people tend to be displaced by the expense of outdoor destinations, she said.

“Previous research and mine predict that low-income people will be the first to stop recreating themselves in Bridal Veil Falls, and that would be a loss to the community,” Wikle said. “They are sensitive to fees on recreation sites. “

The case of costs

Public land managers, however, often need a fee to pay for the maintenance of heavily visited sites. At American Fork Canyon, for example, all fees collected go directly to improving the campgrounds and picnic areas where they are collected.

“It’s a success,” said Loyal Clark, spokesperson for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. “Unfortunately, user fees are one of the easiest ways for land managers to generate the income they need.”

In Salt Lake County, Parks and Recreation Director Martin J. Jensen disputes that the fees deter low-income residents from using Mill Creek Canyon.

“It’s not at all what we’ve seen, it’s actually the opposite,” he said in an email. “Use in [Mill Creek] Canyon has grown every year, this year it has grown 34%.

The county decided to charge the canyon $ 2 in the 1990s (it’s now $ 5) after he was “loved to death” by residents of Salt Lake City, Jensen said. Although the canyon is managed by the US Forest Service, the county has decided to be the entity that collects the fees to ensure that the money is redirected to the improvement of the site, instead of the funds going. in federal coffers to be spent system-wide.

Jensen added that the county has weighed the costs and benefits of a Mill Creek Canyon royalty system at length, and [it] That’s why the fee program was implemented … at $ 2, it didn’t exclude anyone. “

Pedestrians and cyclists have free access and the county also offers an annual fee of $ 50 which is reduced to $ 30 for seniors.

But researchers argue that the increased fees at outdoor sites have big implications, as Utahns increasingly flock to their local mountains for fun and bonding family. In a forthcoming report, Smith and USU found that recreation participation is increasing rapidly in Utah, particularly in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest (which borders Bridal Veil Falls), the most public land close to urban areas of Utah.

“Not only is usage increasing, but in these nearby urban areas like Bridal Veil and Mill Creek, people are recreating there more often,” Smith said. “So the impact of user fees is going to be more dramatic in these places. “

More visits to outdoor spaces means more impact and a need for more maintenance, as Salt Lake County has noticed in Mill Creek Canyon. For public land managers who rely on fees to keep these destinations pristine, Smith suggests creating less onerous fee structures, like discounted annual passes.

Bridal Veil Falls is a unique case, however, where a private developer wants to build a private lodge on public space and charge visitors money so they can recoup their costs. Smith said it takes a public good for the public and puts it in private hands.

“It really reduces the total public benefit, the bottom line to the county or state, when you privatize these public lands and these recreational opportunities,” he said. “It might make more money for a few people, but… your use of the area should decrease, as it is tailored to a specific experience sold at that location.” “

Wikle with BYU said privatizing and billing the falls tour would remove an invaluable asset that’s close and heavily used by residents of Utah County, the state’s fastest growing area. She said letting a developer task the public with building a sophisticated streetcar appears to be a step in the wrong direction, especially as the pandemic has highlighted the need for convenient, close-knit opportunities to experience nature.

“So many Utahns are out of work, have limitations on indoor gatherings, and face a lot of stress. I think healthy and accessible outdoor recreation is more valuable than it ever was, ”she said. “It seems a bit out of touch with the realities we face as Utahns right now.”


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