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Nine Mile board discusses canyon visitor fee concept

Sun Advocate community editor

When the Nine Mile advisory board meets monthly, the members discuss issues related to the canyon.

The topics can include matters like development, preservation of the canyon, land use and tourism.

In the past, the board has tried to find solutions to the dusty road running through the area, to protect rock art and to help the landowners with problems related to living in the canyon. The discussions generally involve money.

Money became an important part of last week's advisory board discussion when the idea of creating a possible fee area out of the canyon surfaced.

"I have looked around and thought about this," said Carbon Commissioner Steve Burge, who sits on the board. "Why couldn't we have a slot for people to put $5 to tour the canyon? If nothing else, it could be a donation kind of thing."

Pay-for-use concept is not new concept. But the idea of people paying for things that were previously free strikes a negative chord.

An example of a similar change recently took place at College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum where, for years, visitors could donate to a glass cubicle in the middle of the main foyer. But starting in July, admission will be charged for people who wish to visit the museum.

Charging people to enter public land has gained criticism, particularly since the United States Congress passed the Recreation Demonstration Fee program in 1996. The fees were supposed to be part of a 24-month program, but remain in place after eight years. The fees also apply to some federal lands, but not others - an inconsistency challenged by the system's critics.

Before 1996, fees were assessed for entering various kinds of federal properties like national parks, monuments and improved campgrounds.

In 1996, the situation began to change as certain federal public land areas started to charge entrance fees whether visitors were camping for five days or taking a one-hour hike.

The situation has affected some areas in Utah. Last spring, for instance, charging all visitors to use the Grand-Escalante Staircase for any type of activity went out the door as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the monument's advisory committee decided to abandon the idea when the town of Escalante opposed the concept.

"The problem is that, for all the things we would like to do in Nine Mile Canyon long term, we need to find revenue to pay for this stuff," stated Dave Levanger, the county's zoning and building director at the advisory board meeting last week. "There are a lot of problems in Nine Mile that need to be solved. Many people wonder why we keep sending tourists to see the canyon when there is no revenue to solve the problems there."

Many tourists come to the area to see Nine Mile, but become disappointed by what they find, primarily because they don't understand what they are looking for or lack of direction on how to find the sites in the canyon.

"I often encounter people who are looking for the rock art in the canyon, but they can't find it because they don't know what they are looking for," said Pam Miller from the CEU Prehistoric Museum. "I then look at their map and I try to guide them and show them what to see and where to go."

Carbon County and local tourism agencies promote Nine Mile, yet there are few amenities or informational sources in the canyon and many people are unhappy when they leave the area. Most visitors expect to find a national park kind of atmosphere with signage, restrooms and view areas in the canyon.

A number of groups, including the Nine Mile advisory board, are trying to develop more of the types of things visitors expect to find in the canyon, but completing the projects will take dollars.

The concept of a possible fee had a more direct link on discussions taking place at last week's meeting when the group talked about Cottonwood Glen, an area with picnic tables and restrooms.

Based on what some of the members of the board said, a lot of trash is tossed around Cottonwood Glen and there are dangerous situations in the area like an open well and a low slung utility line.

"There is a lesson to be learned from this situation," stated Levanger. "We had good intentions when we spent the funds to build that area, but we need to also be able to take care of the things we develop."

Money for maintenance is more scarce in many ways than the money to set up venues. Grants are often available with small matches to build kiosks, put in picnic tables and set up small park like areas. But the true long term costs, as most public officials are willing to tell everyone who approaches them with a project, are the real problem.

According to the board members and the individuals attending last week's meeting, the BLM has consistently run into the problem of when to charge for an area and when to not. In most cases, the public does not seem to mind paying a fee if they can see the value in it. But visitors must get something for the dollars spent or they tend to become unhappy.

But Burge pointed out later in the meeting that, when people are asked about paying for things they are complaining about, many of them balk.

"I was talking to some out-of-the-area reporters recently about the canyon being put on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 11 most endangered sites list," explained Burge. "Some were talking about the things that could be done to the canyon to improve it, like pave the road, and I asked them if they would be willing to pay for it. They shut up when I asked them that."

As Burge explained, it's hard for a small county like Carbon, with a population of less that 20,000 people, to be expected to pay for such a road without a lot of outside help.

However, despite of the lack of money, work on improvements in the canyon continues.

The road around the Hunter Panel has been rerouted and the architect for the venue has drawn up the plans and preliminary viewing areas at the panel. The board will be looking for craftsmen to do rock work in the area and volunteers to help assemble the walls along with other fixtures that will be put up at the site.

The board hopes to complete and dedicate the area during a Public Lands Day celebration planned by the BLM and other entities in September.

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