This staircase carved into the rock leads into Bell Smith Springs, one of eight recreation areas targeted by the National Forest for $5 daily fees.
The Shawnee National Forest in Illinois plans to impose fees at eight recreation areas starting soon. According to their news release,
The Shawnee is proposing to charge $5.00 per vehicle per day at the Johnson Creek Boat Launch, Johnson Creek Beach/Picnic Area, Buttermilk Hill Picnic Area, Lincoln Memorial Park at Jonesboro, Little Grand Canyon Trailhead, Pounds Hollow Beach/Picnic Area, Garden of the Gods Interpretive/Picnic Site and Bell Smith Springs Interpretive/Picnic Area. As an alternative, a yearly pass covering use of all of these sites would be available for $50.00 per vehicle.
The public comment period for this proposal ends today (June 30). Here is a letter that I just sent them.
Comment on the proposed user fees
To whom it may concern:
I am writing to express my mixed feelings about the proposal to charge day-use fees at eight Shawnee National Forest recreation areas.
On the negative side, I have seen the unintended consequences of fee programs within the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri. In particular, the day-use fees at Markham Springs Recreation Area in Wayne County have clearly chased away most potential visitors to that area. What should be a unique recreation area is almost always devoid of people. The nearby town of Williamsville, with a faded sign that boasts "The Gateway to Markham Springs," has been harmed by the dropoff in tourism.
It's not hard to see why people are staying away. With an abundance of *free* state parks, conservation areas, and other public lands, there is simply too much competition for tourists and locals alike. Why pay a fee when perfectly good free alternatives are just around the corner?
On the other hand, as a Missouri resident, I can see the plus side to the proposal: more people will be inclined to visit Missouri's plentiful public lands instead of Southern Illinois'. Free market principles are impossible to ignore. Would-be visitors and tourists, already reeling from high gas prices, will not be too keen on the "nickle and dime" fees that are proposed and some will seek free alternatives on our side of the river. That's good for us, bad for you.
Moreover, anybody who has a bad experience at a fee area will be less likely to return in the future. Fee envelopes and permits are always a hassle. If you pay your $5 only to have the weather suddenly turn sour and ruin your picnic, hike, or horseback ride, you will think twice before forking over money again. Incidents like this -- deserved or not -- will chip away at the National Forest's reputation.
At present, the Shawnee National Forest has failed to provide a convincing argument for the need for improvements that would be funded by the fee program at the proposed sites. Garden of the Gods, Little Grand Canyon, and Bell Smith Springs have perfectly good facilities, enjoy high popularity, and do not seem to be crying out for any kind of "demonstration."
The downsides to the fee program will likely outweigh any improvements that could be made with the additional revenue. As a frequent visitor to the Shawnee, I strongly urge a reconsideration of the plan -- unless the goal is to boost tourism in Missouri, I which case as a Missouri resident I'm all for it!