Advocacy Alert: Three GA State Parks to Target Mountain Bikers with a Trail Fee

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 …

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 [email protected]

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.

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