Climbing fee proposal raises concerns for hospitality

Filed under: Tourism |

Could hikers someday soon be asked to pay a fee to climb Pikes Peak?

Proposed Forest Service fees for the South Colony Basin in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains already have the 14er and climbing community in an uproar.

The pros and cons of charging people to hike major mountains — Colorado is one of the few western states that doesn’t — are many.

Opponents say fees will discourage people from climbing our mountains, a huge draw for the tourism trade. The Forest Service says it needs the money to protect what are national assets.

Each year, about 500,000 people climb one of Colorado’s 14ers.

Precise numbers on climbers are unavailable for Pikes Peak, because it doesn’t have sign-in sheets at the east-slope Barr Trail trailhead or the west-slope Crags trailhead.

But the year-round caretakers of Barr Camp, Teresa and Neal Taylor, do track the number of hikers to the camp at 10,200 feet. Last year, 23,000 hikers stopped at Barr Camp, Teresa Taylor said. The number of people who hike or summit the mountain each year is believed to far exceed that.

Experience Pikes Peak, the convention and visitors bureau in Colorado Springs, said it hopes it fees don’t become widespread.

At the same time, the bureau doesn’t think a fee would deter local tourism — that the average traveler who intended to hike or camp on Pikes Peak would still keep that on his or her itinerary.

For now, proposed fees in the South Colony Basin are $10 per person for day-use hiking, and $20 per person for camping.

At the moment, fees are not considered for any other areas, said Paul Crespin, district ranger for the San Carlos Ranger District, which includes the San Isabel and the South Colony Basin.

At high altitude, the basin, which is the primary access and launching point for climbing four 14ers — Humboldt Peak, Crestone Peak, Crestone Needle and Kit Carson Peak — is especially vulnerable to over-use.

The Forest Service says it doesn’t have the funds to minimize the effects of hikers on the environment.

On average, 4,500 people visit the basin during the summer climbing season, with a 3- to 5- percent increase each year for the past decade or so.

With heavy use, the main system trails are being degraded, climbing routes are being eroded and human waste is a major concern, Crespin said. Fecal chloroform levels in the streams are high. Also, wildlife has become accustomed to humans.

Another issue is the frequency of search-and-rescue calls to the area.

The proposal behind the new fees limits the Forest Service to spending the revenue it collects only within the fee area.

Opponents say that over-use problems need to be resolved without fees.

“There are signs the area is being over-used. But there are better ways to manage over-use than to price people out of using their own public lands, which is what I think this will do,” Kitty Benzar, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, said.

The coalition isn’t opposed to a permit system to limit the number of people in the basin at any one time; it just doesn’t want permits to cost money.

Crespin said fees would allow the Forest Service to install trash dumpsters on the South Colony access road, do ecological monitoring and continue restoration efforts. The agency has spent $1 million in the last 15 years for restoration in the affected area.

The earliest the fees could begin would be 2011.

Crespin hopes that between now and then, people will provide meaningful feedback and perhaps suggest other options during the comment period.

“Anything that allows us to see a viewpoint we haven’t considered is helpful. We’ve been racking our heads and giving this a great deal of attention for the last five years. But all the easy things have been done. We are now looking at hard options,” Crespin said.

He’s well aware of people’s consternation about being charged to use National Forest lands.

“(But) I have to (make sure the land is) safe, healthy and sustainable. And that (visitors) don’t have to worry about stepping in human waste,” he said. “We are trying to figure out what’s easiest.”

Rebecca Tonn can be reached at or 719-329-5229. Friend her on Facebook.

2 Responses to Climbing fee proposal raises concerns for hospitality

  1. Good article Rebecca.
    I do want to point out some important clarifications. The Forest Service’s appropriated funding – what Congress gives them out of our taxes – has increased over 72% since 2000. Contrary to conventional wisdom that has not all gone to firefighting – recreation has its own line item and it is up proportionately to the overall appropriation. If that money is not making it to the ground on the San Carlos Ranger District, well that is a matter for agency budget reform, not for permission to pick the taxpaying public’s pocket a second time.
    Search and Rescue in South Colony Basin, just as everywhere else in Colorado, is provided by volunteers under authority of the County Sheriff, not by the Forest Service.
    The $1 million that has been invested in South Colony Basin is mostly non-federal funding, and it came with 40,000 hours of volunteer labor from the Rocky Mountain Institute, Colorado Fourteeners, Initiative, Colorado Outward Bound, and other environmental service groups.
    The promise that fee revenue will be spent where it was collected has proven hollow in other places. The Forest Service’s fiscal accounting is so dismal that they can seldom say with any degree of accuracy where any of their money is spent. The GAO sums it up thus: “the agency has not always been able to provide Congress and the public with a clear understanding of what its 30,000 employees accomplish with the approximately $5 billion the agency receives every year.” (GAO-09-443t)

    Kitty Benzar
    May 22, 2010 at 5:24 pm

  2. Hello Kitty,
    Thank you for providing additional background information for our readers.

    Rebecca Tonn
    May 24, 2010 at 9:02 am