Park user fees make difference

On The Outdoors

February 05, 1998|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

The noreaster that blew up the Atlantic Coast last week severely damaged the main dunes on Assateague Island, and this week's storm was potentially more dangerous, an official with the state's Forest and Park Service said yesterday.

"Last week, with a lot of quick funding and hard work, we were able to rebuild the main dune at Assateague State Park," said Rick Barton, superintendent of the State Forest and Park Service. "But before the rebuilding, if you stood in the campground, you were on the shoreline. Picnic tables were covered with sand up to their tops.

"With this current storm, we will just have to wait and see. But it is slow-moving and potentially more devastating."

Noreasters and other natural disasters are hard to predict, said Barton, and major storms or flooding often stretch the Forest and Park Service budget beyond its planned limits.

In the case of major disasters, such as the pounding of Assateague in successive weeks, additional state and federal funds can be tapped for restoration projects.

But in the case of day-to-day operations in state forests and parks, some 40 percent of the operating budget still comes from fees paid by people and groups using public lands.

Funds from the state, Barton said, "basically cover our full-time employees and we are expected to raise 'X' number of dollars" from user fees for timber operations, land leases, rental of pavilions, entrance and camping fees, admission to pools or swimming areas, concession stands, boat rentals and so on.

User or service fees, Barton said, raise $11 to 12 million annually statewide, accounting for "about 40 percent of our operating budget."

Last fall, the Department of Natural Resources and the State Forest and Park Service implemented honor-system entrance fees for off-season use of parks. Fees range from $1 to $2 per car and are paid in lock boxes at park entrances.

Barton said yesterday the fees are being paid in three-quarters of the state and estimated the proceeds will add $25,000 to $30,000 to the Forest and Park Reserve Fund, which usually is dispersed annually to all state parks and forests, based on need.

"That means that the money raised in one park might not stay there specifically," said Barton. "If you have one park that brings in a tremendous amount of money and others that bring in a little, the one that does make more will help out those that don't."

The reserve fund, he said, pays for utilities, fuel and maintenance on lands, trails, bridges, lakes, watercourses, cabins and campsites.

"We are lucky because some states don't have that system. In some states, it all goes into the General Fund," said Barton. "In Maryland, these funds are earmarked for Forests and Parks."

Maryland's parks are mostly low-development areas, Barton said, rather than "big-profit centers" as some states have.

"We're not like, say, Ohio or Kentucky," said Barton. "We have left the parks and forests so that the emphasis is on the natural resources, and in some of our parks their share of that $30,000 might be the difference between hiring seasonal lifeguards or not having them. It can make a big difference."

The public response to the off-season fees has been positive.

"We're not getting complaints. People seem to understand and they are willing to chip in," said Barton. "People who use the parks regularly and didn't know there was a need, often end up volunteering."

Only the parks on the Eastern Shore are not charging the off-season entrance fee, Barton said, because parks in the state's Eastern Region are removed from major population centers and are lightly used over the winter.

Pub Date: 2/05/98

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