Pay as you Go: Investigating MTB Trail Use Fees

Bike trail use fees could become more common as land managers and volunteer groups struggle to fund maintenance.

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is proposing various fee increases in several districts around the country, including new trail use fees targeting mountain bikers at popular trailheads in Pisgah, Nantahala, and Uwharrie National Forests in North Carolina. Riders currently pay nothing to use the trails at the Pisgah Trail complex in Brevard, the Jackrabbit trail system on Lake Chatuge, and the Wood Run trails east of Charlotte near Troy, NC. The USFS proposes charging $5 per rider, per day at these locations, or $30 per year with an annual pass.

While trailhead parking and entry fees are not unusual on lands managed at the federal, state, and municipal levels, individual trail use fees for bike riders remain relatively uncommon. Privately managed resorts and bike parks, on the other hand, typically charge a per-rider entry fee to cover the costs of building and maintaining trails, facilities, and insurance.

With major trail maintenance backlogs and limited funding for building new trails, MTB trail use fees like the ones proposed by the USFS could become an increasingly common, though not necessarily popular, avenue for raising funds.

The need for fees

In 2019 the USFS estimated that clearing its maintenance backlog would cost almost $6 billion. The following year the Great American Outdoors Act authorized $285 million in payments to the USFS through the year 2025, and while helpful, the funding barely covers 25% of the backlog amount.

Even with the funding increase, government agencies like the USFS have a difficult time attracting candidates to service positions which generally don’t pay very well.

“People don’t understand how the trails get maintained,” said Todd Branham, Pisgah-area resident and co-owner of trail building company Long Cane Trails. In Pisgah and other National Forests, the USFS leans heavily on volunteer labor, though even that has become a challenge to tap into and coordinate due to a lack of USFS resources.

“You see businesses can’t find people to work, well there’s no difference in the Forest Service,” said Branham. “So there’s no one to clean the facilities, there’s no one to do trail maintenance that can actually monitor [volunteers].”

Chris Nichols, Forest Recreation Program Manager for the Cibola National Forest and Grasslands in New Mexico, confirms that hiring remains a major challenge, with hundreds of positions currently open across the Forest Service.

“In years past we’ve seen an increased interest in our trails but not as much interest from candidates seeking to help protect those opportunities. Most of us who work in trails/recreation are often enthusiasts ourselves,” he said. Unfortunately passion doesn’t always pay the bills.

In 2012 Phil’s World riders in Colorado were asked to pay $3 per rider or $8 per family. In 2020, a $5-10 family donation is suggested.

Pay to play

Many groomed ski trail and motorized trail users are accustomed to paying fees for access to USFS facilities, typically $5-15 per visitor, per day. The fees are largely designed to support the regular maintenance required to keep those types of trails running. And like ATVs and motorized vehicles, equestrians, bikers, and hikers also cause trail damage that eventually needs to be addressed.

Branham suggests that mountain bikers are generally “the next biggest impact users of the forest as far as erosion goes.” While few if any new trail use fees have been proposed for hikers, forest managers are clearly looking to bikers and equestrians to pay their share.

“Most of our sites that charge fees are brought to that standard because they are addressing issues including human waste management, sustainable parking surfaces needed for full-year access, as well as meeting other needs for visitors by providing amenities such as picnicking, group pavilions, etc.,” said Nichols of the Cibola National Forest.

In an online document outlining the proposed 2023 trail use fees, the USFS states that “up to 95 percent of fees collected at recreation sites may be used locally to operate, maintain, and improve these areas, so fee increases will translate directly to improved facilities and trails across the forest.”

Unfortunately, not all land management agencies make the same funding commitment, and for that reason mountain bikers tend to be wary of trail use fees, particularly at the state level.

“A lot of times those fees get lost,” said Mike Repyak, Director of Planning and Design at IMBA Trail Solutions. “It goes to a larger fund, rather than specifically back to that trail’s maintenance.”

In 2012 Singletracks wrote about a proposed trail use fee targeting mountain bikers in Georgia State Parks. Riders were upset about being charged to use trails that many of them helped build on a volunteer basis, and also questioned what would happen to the funds. The fee was ultimately implemented at a few of the more popular state parks, though it’s no longer in force today. A current State Parks representative not involved in the decision did not know why the fee had been eliminated.

Optional trail use fees

Some trail groups seek to raise funding for maintenance through donations collected at trailheads, though not always successfully. The pitch is simple: riders are encouraged to make a donation each time they ride, with a suggested amount of a few bucks at a time. Unfortunately it’s not clear that relying on riders’ good intentions is enough to pay the bills.

SORBA Woodstock Treasurer Jay Wilkes shared trail donation and usage data for two popular Atlanta-area trail networks, Blankets Creek and Rope Mill. Based on trail counter data, Rope Mill received at least 32,000 visits in 2022 and collected just $1,287 through a cash donation box at the trailhead, which works out to about $0.04 per visit. In addition to the cash box, riders also have the option of scanning a QR code to make a donation online which adds another $0.04 per rider at best. (The same donation form is linked on the group’s website so not all of those donations are necessarily tied directly to trail use.)

Cash donations at Blankets Creek, which received more than 58,000 visits, look a little better — roughly $0.08 per visitor — with up to another $0.17 per visit if digital donations are included. That’s still far less than the $5 fee the USFS suggests is necessary to maintain the North Carolina trails.

Like trails in the Pisgah National Forest, the Noquemanon Trails Network (NTN) in Marquette, Michigan sees a number of visitors each year, and about 70% of them come from outside the local area.

“Trail use is far exceeding the revenue and volunteer engagement needed to sustain, maintain, and expand trails,” says Lori Hauswirth, Executive Director of NTN, a non-profit group that maintains, develops, and promotes trails in the Upper Peninsula.

In the state of Michigan liability protection is not available if a fee is charged for land access, so the group asks visitors for trail donations to help with funding. In 2022, NTN saw approximately 70,000 visitors and collected $2,345 in cash donations at three trailhead locations plus another $772 via QR code trail scans. Altogether that’s a measly $0.04 per visit.

“We really need users to give back to their local trails and every trail system they visit as consumers compared to supporters is currently not in balance,” Hauswirth says. “It would be such a relief to have all users contribute in a meaningful way so we could focus more of our resources on the end product versus the means.”

Automated trail donations

Trail Care is an online service that’s designed to make collecting trail donations easier, and participating mountain bikers make a per-mile pledge to support local trail groups. On average Trail Care users pledge $0.24 per mile ridden, so a 20-mile ride results in a roughly $5 donation. In a comment to the USFS regarding the Pisgah trail use fee proposal, Trail Care CEO Arrie Rossouw wrote, “we believe that there is a better, ‘softer’ (semi-voluntary) approach to getting help from trail users.” He tells Singletracks that Pisgah area riders who currently use the Trail Care service donate much more than $30 per year on average.

Pisgah National Forest file photo. Credit: Jeff Barber.

The fee future

The comment period for the proposed USFS trail use fees is now closed, so whether the fees will be implemented or not is unknown. Branham for one, is supportive, though he thinks not everyone will be stoked.

“Some people won’t like it,” he said. “They’re gonna have their $8,000 bike on their [expensive] car and they’re gonna bitch about $30 a year to ride in the forest because they believe it should be free,” he said. In fact the USFS does offer six fee-free days per year including Veterans Day and Martin Luther King Jr. day.

“What’s happened here [in Pisgah] is we’ve had to fast forward from an organic growth of tourism here to like an explosive growth,” said Branham. “This is the only way that we can keep up with this is by funding the trails here.”

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