The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GaDNR) is currently proposing a new fee toride mountain bikes on trails in three state parks: Unicoi, Fort Yargo, and Hard Labor Creek (which will have brand new mountain biking trails opening in the next few months). Fort Mountain State Park has had a trail fee in place for several years, and it will remain. Area riders are up in arms over the new fee, but not because of the money. In discussing the issue I’m going to focus mostly on Fort Yargo, because it’s the most popular of the three for mountain bikers.

I’ve spoken with several people involved in this issue trying to see all the different sides: Tim Banks, the Assistant Chief of Operations for GaDNR; Robin Allen, Communication Director for Southern Off Road Bicycle Association (SORBA); and Tim Schroer, owner of Dirty Spokes Productions who promotes mountain bike races, duathlons,XTERRA triathlons,and trail running races all across north Georgia, including Fort Yargo.

The Proposal

If the proposed system is put in place, it will require riders to check in at park offices before they ride. They will fill out a form and pay a $2 per rider fee and be given a placard or something similar to attach to their bike or carry with them as proof they paid the fee. This new fee will be in addition to the current $5 per vehicle parking fee. An annual trail pass can be purchased for $25, and the annual parking pass cost will remain unchanged at $50.

Why Riders Are Angry

What I didn’t mention above is that ONLY mountain bikers have to pay the $2 trail fee. Hikers and runners can use the trails without the fee (though they still have to pay for parking). This is the main reason many mountain bikers are angry – for being singled out. Further, the trails at Fort Yargo were built and maintained almost exclusively by volunteer mountain bikers from the Yargo Area Biking Association (YABA) with very little cost to the State. I haven’t been able to find the exact numbers regarding just how much the State actually paid for the construction of the trails but I would imagine the trail has more than paid for itself thanks to the crowds of people it brings to the park. Last year the Athens Banner-Herald reported that the park had over 400,000 visitors and an economic impact of more than $24 million on the local area. Before the trails were built it was one of the least visited of all the State Parks.

Volunteers have built some super fun trails in Fort Yargo State Park. Photo: Athurber

Mr. Banks pointed out that mountain bikers are one of the last user groups to be charged for activities in State Parks. Horseback riding, disc golf, swimming pools, and boat rental users have been charged fees for years. While mountain biking doesn’t use facilities that the State maintains(such as boat rentals for example), riders do enjoy other amenities in the parks that cost the park money to build and maintain such as picnic tables, paved parking, shelters,bathrooms, water, etc. I would argue that our parking fee would cover the minimal maintenance costs of those facilities, no?

When asked why hikers and runners wouldn’t be charged to use the same trails, Mr. Banks told me they believe that certain basic activities in State Parks should be free, and walking is really as basic as it gets. I totally agree. But, we’re using the same exact facilities, and it simply isn’t right to charge one group and not another.

Another reason riders are angry about the fee is because the money will not necessarily go directly back to the trails. For that matter, the money might not even stay in the park where it’s collected, instead going into the general park system fund. Mr. Banks explained to me, however, this is how ALL fees are handled, so it’s not like they’re only using bikers’ fees to fund other activities.

Many riders feel so strongly that the fee is unfair and “punishment for success,” as one person put it, they are threatening to stop riding at the parks, and not renewing their annual parking passes. There is also the worry that the fee will alienate volunteers who have spent years working on these trails, so much so that they just stop working on them. Many of them see this as a stab in the back. There is also a fear of the negative economic impact this fee could have on the areas surrounding the parks if riders do indeed stop riding there.

The trails in Unicoi State Park are part of mountain biking history: they played host to the NORBA Nationals in the mid ’90s and the current Georgia State Championship series often uses Unicoi for its season finale race. Photo: mtbgreg1

Why a New Fee?

Because the parks need money, that’s why. Since 2008 state appropriation funding to the park system has been cut by 46%. Despite the cuts, GaDNR has been able to keep all GA State Parks open. But, if they want to keep them open, more money has to be raised. Mr. Banks said they estimate the fee will bring in an additional $2,500 the first year from Fort Yargo. This doesn’t seem like much money to me. I asked why not simply raise the parking fee? Well, they did that just a few years ago, and they try not to raise it too often. It had been unchanged for about 7 years before the most recent increase.

Volunteer Rewards Program

The parks had several town hall type meetings recently regarding the new fees and many riders showed up and voiced their concern. One of the results of those meetings is a volunteer rewards program. Anyone who volunteers 20hrs of trail work will receive a free annual trail pass for their entire family. This is a win-win: it rewards volunteers, and it will help attract more volunteers. The parks will also be awarding honorary lifetime trail passes to people who were instrumental in building and maintaining the trails.

Brothers Steve and Randy Gordon founded the Yargo Area Biking Association and have been working on the trails there for years. Photo: YABA

What About Racing?

Races at the parks draw big crowds, bringing lots of people into the park and surrounding areas who wouldn’t otherwise have been there – their economic impact shouldn’t be taken lightly. The Dirty Spokes race I did at Fort Yargo last year had over 400 racers, and it seems to grow every year. A lot of riders wondered how, and if, the new fee would change the race – would racers still have to check in and pay the $2 fee? Will it cause the race entry fees to go up? I asked Tim Schroer about how the new fees will affect the races and here’s his response:

I don’t know how it will effect races at the parks but hope people see and understand we have a great situation here in Georgia with some outstanding state parks. The facilities at each of the parks here in Georgia are very well maintained / grounds well manicured and looked after (I believe the daily user fees in California are about $12 and the way our parks are maintained are so much better than the ones we visited this past year in California).

It is my understanding the additional fees will not apply to the events or participants in the events (but have not had a formal conversation about it / however our contracts are in and signed for 2012 and they do not reflect the new fees).If there is an additional charge in years to come we will absorb the costs (we are in our 7th year of putting on these events and have never raised our prices.)

I had an awesome time racing at Fort Yargo last year.

SORBA’s Stance

When I spoke with Robin Allen it was clear that SORBA is taking the long view on this – how can it be used to improve mountain biking in Georgia? The issue has (hopefully) opened a dialog between GaDNR and SORBA. Robin said they’re trying to show the state just how awesome mountain biking can be for the park system. If the success at Fort Yargo could be duplicated in other parks it would only be a good thing for everyone: the parks, riders, and communities around the parks. SORBA had staff members (and plenty of local chapter members as well) at each of the meetings regarding the fee and they pushed for a fair solution, and especially something that rewards volunteers. The parks listened (somewhat at least) and will be implementing the volunteer rewards program I discussed above.

What is the Answer?

There’s no getting around the fact that theparks need money to stay open. I understand that, as do most other riders. Like I said, the money isn’t why riders are angry. It’s the principal of the matter. They’re angry because they’re being singled out. They’re especially angry since they’re being singled out to use facilities they built and maintain for the park which have greatly benefited the park via increased visitors and parking fee revenue. No good deed goes unpunished as they say.

Now, I don’t think the answer is to apply the trail fee to everyone. Sorry, but I can’t stand behind charging someone to walk in a State Park. In my opinion, there shouldn’t be a trail fee, period. The only fair solution in my mind is to raise the parking fee. This is completely fair since everyone would have to pay it, not just one user group. And it would raise much more money than charging mountain bikers to ride.

If the park system would work with riders we could be a huge asset to them. We’ll help secure funding to get new trails built, and we’ll swing the tools to build them as well. We’ll maintain them for free. Those trails bring a new group of people into the park that otherwise wouldn’t have come. Races will help draw even more people into the park. We don’t just come to the park with bikes and riding gear – we come with money to spend in the surrounding communities. We camp,stay at hotels, buy gas, eat at local restaurants, and shop at local stores. But by discriminating against mountain bikers by charging riders, and only riders, a fee to use multi-use trails, the parks would be biting the hand that feeds them. Many riders will simply ride someplace else, where their volunteer work isn’t rewarded with a fee targeted only at them. There are 172 trails listed in the Singletracks trail database for Georgia -riders have lots of choices.

Got An Opinion?

GaDNR is accepting comments on the new fee until Jan 20th (Friday). If you would like to submit comments send them to Director.GSPHS@dnr.state.ga.us

Also, as always, use the comments section here on the blog to tell us what you think.

I’d like to thank Tim Banks, Robin Allen, and Tim Schroer for taking the time to answer my multiple e-mails, phone calls, and text messages.

# Comments

  • trek7k

    Great coverage Dustin. The idea of rewarding volunteers with an annual pass seems like a good idea, though 20 hours is kinda steep when you think about it (that’s basically 5 half-days of trail work – most folks probably don’t put in more than 2-3 half days per year). Single-day volunteers should at least get a pass to ride that day (or another day in the future).

    The $2 fee sucks but taking the time to sign in at the office is even more painful to me. Plus it seems wasteful to have someone sitting in the office during park hours to collect my $$ and info. And what about the cost of enforcement – will they need to add extra hours for the rangers so they can patrol the trails, checking passes?

    What about the idea of using a “carrot” instead of a “stick” approach? The GA State Parks dept. already runs the Muddy Spokes club and for $10 you get a punch card for each state park with MTB trails. Fill up your card by riding at every trail and you get a t-shirt. That promotes tourism around the state plus most people won’t finish the challenge anyway (there are 11 trails you have to hit). How about promoting that and making it easy to sign up online? Heck, singletracks will even pitch in with some free banner ads to help promote the club!

  • mtbgreg1

    This is a tough issue. I agree with you on almost all points, Dustin. There shouldn’t be a user fee.

    However, if a user fee IS issued, I’d like to suggest a little protest: Don’t park at the park. Mountain bikers are much more mobile than hikers, and this will work especially well at Fort Yargo where Winder is only a mile or two away. Riders can easily park at a local business, or ride from home. Even if they have to pay a $2 fee, that will still be a $5 LOSS per rider that would normally have parked at the trails. Plus, it would be better for the environment!

    How about the DNR just keeps ALL of the fees where they’re at, and we’ll continue to pay to park at the trailhead??

  • topjimmy

    I agree we shouldn’t be charged extra for just riding. Although I don’t ride much at State Parks I would hate to see this fee. I too think they will be spending more money on Staff for checking to see if we pay these fees. I think they should invest in getting more trails at more parks. So only 11 parks with mountain biking trails out of a total of about 46 State Parks. I think they can benefit by allowing SORBA and IMBA get more involved and put more mountain bike trails in. Now I know we can’t have mountain bike trails at every park but adding more would definitely bring in more revenue. Also improving on ones that already have trails. Like Red Top Mountain for instance (I am close to Red Top so I use it for an example). They have 12.5 miles of hiking trails and only one 4 mile gravel trail for mountain biking. By adding or allowing mountain bikers on the other trails it will bring in more people. More people means more money in parking fees, maybe staying overnight, and much more.

  • RoadWarrior

    Lets see; have to stop, and pay a parking fee, then stop, and pay/ fill out a form to ride a trail that is bringing in visitors/ money, then carry around proof that I paid. Sorry I’ll probably ride elsewhere. It’s not the money, it’s the time and hassle. Riding is my unwind time. Could go on about what is wrong with this proposal but I’m starting to get stressed and it’s only 7AM.

  • CFM

    I’m an outsider in this discussion (Missouri) but I read this with great interest. Thanks dgaddis for getting info on both sides of the issue. We haven’t faced this yet in our area and I don’t think we have to worry about it for some time. But the fact is that land managers are facing budget shortfalls and need to find other revenue streams. Any new fees, however, must be imposed fairly and equally among park users. I suspect they saw the mountain biking community as an easy target and not enough thought was put into the decision. The (mtb) community has responded appropriately by voicing their opinions with the managers and at public forums. Land managers must realize the value that has been added to their areas by properly constructed and maintained trail systems and the amount of donated time and resources it takes to keep them that way. I think the volunteer rewards system is at least a partial acknowledgement and is a good positive step in the right direction.

  • Mtnrider001

    Raise the parking fee … I agree with that solution. Its fair and appropriate, you are indeed using the facilities and paying an appropriate fee to use them. Mountain bikers rarely use more facilities than a walker or runner would, and why wouldn’t the parking fee cover that? But a usage fee? that’s just insulting and infuriating. Biking, with the exception of lift fees, has always been a FREE sport to enjoy

    How are they going to keep mountain bikers out anyways? Lets face it, mountain bikers are notorious for “bending” or outright breaking such laws and restrictions to enjoy the freedom of using a decent trail system. I see the park spending more money keeping rouge bikers out of the park than they would earn through $2 per rider fee. How are they going to catch them? Patrol the trails with ATVs? Because thats the only thing that will catch them … think man hours, gas and equipment … and I doubt you will catch many to make up the difference.

  • dgaddis

    The fees are happening. Got this e-mail from the GaDNR Public Affairs Coordinator today:

    ATLANTA, January 25, 2012 – The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has announced new mountain bike trail fees and passes at three state parks. Beginning March 1, a $2 daily or $25 annual pass will be required at Fort Yargo, Hard Labor Creek and Unicoi state parks. The existing $3 trail fee at Fort Mountain State Park will not change.

    During the past few years, Georgia’s State Parks have been challenged with finding ways to rely less on state funding while keeping parks open for public use. To meet this challenge, officials are looking at user fees and annual passes to cover activities such as horseback riding, disc golf, miniature golf and mountain biking.

    Fort Mountain State Park near Chatsworth has charged a $3 bike trail fee since opening its extensive bike trail system in 1997. The other three parks will charge a $2 bike trail fee. Avid mountain bikers may purchase a $25 annual pass that provides unlimited access to all four mountain bike trails and covers each family member. The laminated passes must be displayed at all times while riding and are good at all parks visited that day.

    The DNR conducted two public meetings and invited online comments during January on proposed fees. After evaluating feedback from park users, officials agreed to offer free passes to its most dedicated volunteers.

    Bicycling opportunities are continually expanding in Georgia’s State Parks. Hard Labor Creek State Park in Rutledge will open six new miles of mountain bike trails this spring, and trails are being planned for the new Chattahoochee Bend State Park near Newnan. Panola Mountain State Park joined the PATH Foundation in offering a paved multi-use trail in Stockbridge. A few years ago, the agency kicked off its Muddy Spokes Club which helps bikers improve their riding skills at six state parks.

    At the four parks which require mountain bike trail fees, riders without an annual pass will be required to check in at the park office during regular hours. Park officials believe that checking in helps improve safety, especially for new riders or during emergencies. Annual pass holders will not need to check in each day, except at Fort Mountain State Park which has the most remote and difficult trails.

    For more information about biking in Georgia’s State Parks, go to GeorgiaStateParks.org.

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