At Congaree National Park in South Carolina, officials are proposing to institute fees on front-country camping as well as ranger-led canoe tours next year, in part to help local businesses.
Public comment on the proposed fee increases will be taken for 30 days, beginning Tuesday. Under the proposal, fees also will be collected for picnic pavilion reservations. The revenues would be used in the park for improvements to existing amenities and/or the addition of new amenities for the benefit of the visiting public.
Congaree National Park currently offers free tent camping in designated campground sites in the front country. Individual and group campsites at the Longleaf and Bluff campgrounds have fire rings and picnic tables and access to a water spigot and restroom at the nearby Harry Hampton Visitor Center. Campers self-register and obtain a free permit at each campground.
Part of the park's justification for imposing the camping fees is that Congaree's free camping is currently undercutting local parks and businesses that offer comparable camping for a fee. The initiation of a camping fee at Congaree will also offer the park the opportunity to improve campground amenities to potentially include additional individual and group campsites, accessible campsites, tent pads, water spigots, lantern hangers, electric hookups and improved informational and interpretive media and signage at the campgrounds.
A single picnic pavilion with ten picnic tables is located adjacent to the visitor center parking lot. Additional picnic tables and grills nearby provide a gathering place for large groups. Use of the pavilion is currently free on a first-come first-served basis. Groups often inquire about reserving the pavilion for large family gatherings. A fee for pavilion reservations would allow Congaree the opportunity to provide a system for reserving use of the facility and improve amenities such as grills, tables, and potentially the addition of new pavilions to other areas of the park. When not reserved, the pavilion would remain free and open to the visiting public.
The proposal to charge for the ranger-led canoe tours also is aimed at helping local businesses. Congaree currently offers a limited number of free ranger-guided canoe tours on Cedar Creek. The park provides all required equipment and visitors are led by an interpretive park ranger on a two-hour paddle trip.
Local canoe outfitters operating under park-issued Commercial Use Authorizations conduct more than 100 similar tours each year in the park, for a fee.
"The free ranger-guided programs are in direct competition with these outfitters," park officials said in a release discussing the proposed fees. "Additionally, although the ranger-guided tours are very popular with park visitors, the program is not sustainable long-term with the park's current staffing and budget levels. A fee program would provide for improved competition with local outfitters. It would also allow the park to recover the cost of operating the tours, possibly offer additional tours and purchase safe and adequate equipment, including personal flotation devices, canoes, kayaks, paddles and canoe trailering equipment."
During the next 30 days public comments will be compiled and addressed by park staff and a fee proposal will be forwarded to regional and Washington offices of the National Park Service for review and approval.
To comment online visit http://parkplanning.nps.gov .
Two public meetings will be held in the areas around Congaree to allow the public to direct questions, concerns or comments to park staff:
* Thursday, September 5; 6 p.m.- 8 p.m. @ Richland Library Main, Bank of America Conference Room, 1431 Assembly St., Columbia, South Carolina
* Tuesday, September 10; 5:30 p.m. -7:30 pm @ Richland Library Eastover, 608 Main Street, Eastover, South Carolina