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Limit park fee increases.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Of the nearly $500 million in fee increases authorized by the Oregon Legislature this year, the proposed increases in state park fees seem at first glance to rank among the least welcome and most poorly timed in a recession that has left many lower- and middle-income families gasping for economic survival. However, a strong case can be made for modest increases, although perhaps not at the levels approved by state lawmakers.

In hard economic times, Oregonians long have enjoyed the affordable option of getting away from it all at a state park.

Whether it's a weekend of camping in primitive sites tucked under towering Doug firs at the Fall Creek State Recreation Area near Lowell, a hike on the fern-strewn Trail of Ten Falls at Silver Falls State Park northeast of Salem, or a clamming expedition on the pristine tidelands of the Clay Myers State Natural Area at Whalen Island on the Oregon Coast, all that's required is transportation and payment of fees that long have ranked among the lowest in the nation.

If the Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission votes this fall to raise state parks fees by the full amount approved by the Legislature, those getaways still will be affordable for most Oregonians. But they'll take a bigger chomp out of already overextended household incomes, and some of the state's lowest income residents may even find themselves priced out of the state parks and campgrounds that charge fees. (Many state park day use areas are open to the public free of charge, and no change is contemplated in their status.)

The proposed fee increases would be across the board. Campsites would increase an average of $4 per night for tent and RV sites, and between $5 and $10 per night for cabins and yurts. Day use fees would go from $3 per carload to $5, while campground reservation fees would bump from $6 to $8. Boat moorage fees would go from $7 to $10, and day-use 12-month passes would increase from $25 to $30.

State park officials make a convincing argument for fee increases. Rates have remained unchanged for 13 years, and a typical state park campsite costs exactly the same today as it did in 1996. The state's camping and day-use rates are well below those of other public and private campgrounds in the Northwest.

Meanwhile, the cost of operating and maintaining the state's extensive network of parks has continued to climb, while revenues have failed to keep pace.

The state parks agency receives no general fund tax dollars. And its revenues from RV registration fees have dropped sharply, while its revenues from the Oregon Lottery are expected to decline in coming years.

Many Oregonians assume that Measure 66, which state voters approved in 1998 and which created the state's Parks and Natural Resources Fund, took care of the state parks revenue needs. The constitutional amendment diverted 15 percent of Oregon Lottery revenues to the fund, which is split evenly between parks and salmon recovery.

Measure 66, which will be up for renewal by state voters in 2014, revived a state parks system that desperately needed repairs and was about to see the closure of 60 parks. Revenues from Powerball, Megabucks, Scratch-its and Win for Life were dedicated to making repairs at campgrounds and parks, and to buying and developing new park lands.

The agency relies on user fees to cover day-to-day park operations, and the hard reality is that those fees no longer are adequate for running a parks system that serves more than 40 million day visitors and 2.2 million campers annually.

In 1996, user fees covered 72 percent of the cost of operating state parks. Now, they cover just 55 percent.

Despite the abysmal economy, recent surveys of those using the agency's reservation system show a high level of support - 78 percent - for increased fees if they are necessary to maintain current levels of service in state parks.

It's clear that fee increases are necessary. But the Parks and Recreation Commission should try to limit the amount of the increases. Or it might consider phasing them in over time to ease the impact on Oregonians who have been hit hard by the recession and who need the ability to escape, however briefly, from the demands of daily life.
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Title Annotation:Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Aug 29, 2009
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