Fees fail to deter wilderness visitors | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Fees fail to deter wilderness visitors

Patrick McCartney

Desolation Wilderness remained one of the nation’s most popular wilderness destinations this year, despite a first-ever fee charged to overnight visitors.

The public seemed to understand and accept the idea of a fee to help offset costs of maintaining the heavily used area, said Don Lane, a Forest Service recreation specialist. “Now it’s the obligation of Forest Service to show good accountability of the funds,” he said.

Desolation was one of 100 federally managed resources in the country to charge a fee this year, in a three-year pilot program to improve funding for popular sites.

For the year, the U.S. Forest Service issued permits for about 60,000 visitor-nights in the backwoods, roughly the same as in past years, Lane said.

The Lake Tahoe unit and Eldorado National Forest jointly administer the 64,000-acre wilderness area.

Overnight permits cost $5 per person for a single night and $10 each for two or more nights. The Forest Service raised about $100,000 from the wilderness permits this year.

While backcountry visits remained about the same, the number of cars parking at the Eagle Falls lot increased by 10 percent this year, even though daytime visitors were charged $3 to park. About 50,000 cars parked at the Emerald Bay location.

Lane said the stable visitor numbers reflects the great interest in Desolation Wilderness and Emerald Bay, Lane said.

“I’m sure the fee was a factor,” Lane said. “There’s no question some people did not choose to park there, but there is so much demand that there was no impact.”

Overnight stays were about the same, or even increased slightly, in the Tahoe Basin portion of the wilderness, while overnight use of the area in Eldorado National Forest dropped about 20 percent.

But Lane attributed the drop in Eldorado to flood damage and reconstruction that forced the closure of trailheads at Wright Lake and Lyon’s Lake, rather than the imposition of a fee.

“Our front-line people were amazed at how accepting visitors were,” Lane said. “Many accepted a charge as simply another public area that required a fee. A few questioned it, but said they understood when they heard the explanation for it.”

While Desolation is one of the most heavily used wilderness areas in the country for its size, the Forest Service’s budget to manage the area had dropped from $240,000 in 1995 to $155,000 in 1996.

Under the fee program, 80 percent of the revenues are intended to remain in the area, paying for maintenance and new services.

This summer, for instance, the Forest Service stationed two rangers at the visitors center to process wilderness permits. In the afternoon, the rangers would serve as naturalists to interpret the natural resources of Emerald Bay.

The Forest Service also cleared about 100 new miles of trails for hikers, and increased patrols at popular locations.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.