Editor's note: As fees for recreating on public lands continue to increase, who gets the money? Contributor Lee Dalton came away with some answers to that question from his recent visit to Timpanogos Cave National Monument in Utah.
Last night, I thought I had finished my piece about American Fork Canyon’s multiple uses. But I still had a couple of questions to ask regarding the relationship between the National Park Service at Timpanagos Cave National Monument and the U.S. Forest Service operation of this part of Uinta National Forest. I headed to the cave’s visitor center to get some quick answers. In a few moments, I was standing on the deck outside the center talking with Superintendent Jim Ireland.
There are no quick answers.
What I learned was very satisfying and much more complex than I had imagined. What I took to be a fairly simple bit of interagency cooperation is a much deeper and more involved tale. So much so that instead of simply adding a few more lines to my story, I’ve wound up starting a second installment. Best of all, it’s a story of a batch of government bureaucrats – those awful people we all love to bash – working carefully together to bring a lot of plain ol’ common sense as they try to manage some monumental multiple challenges shared by at least four different governmental entities.
What Jim Ireland told me renewed my faith in the people whose hands and minds and feet are at work keeping our public recreating grounds open and running well. All it takes are good people willing to try to work together in seeking sensible solutions to common problems.
These may be the people we really need to elect to Congress.
This story actually began back in about 1995 when the Fee Demonstration program started. Originally, it involved just the NPS and USFS and was primarily aimed at campground and picnic area improvements. But it didn’t take long for the benefits of working together to become evident. It also didn’t take long to realize that it was not something that could be limited to only those two agencies.
When I asked if the NPS and USFS split the fees collected by rangers from both agencies, I learned that the fees are actually baked into a big pizza shared by a bunch of hungry diners. Included in the American Fork partnership are not only the park and forest services, but also the Utah Department of Transportation, which uses fee money to help maintain Highway 92 that runs to Timpanogos and continues as the Alpine Scenic Loop Highway. Besides that, Utah’s Department of Natural Resources and Utah State Parks share as some funds go to Wasatch Mountain State Park, which adjoins the forest on the northeast. Wasatch Mountain grooms all the snowmobile and cross-country ski trails that stretch across the forest in winter. Utah County Sheriff’s department shares in funding to support their role as primary search-and-rescue agency on all the federal lands within the canyon area. The sheriff also provides law enforcement and extra patrols in cooperation with Forest Service law enforcement personnel.
Even the nearby city of Pleasant Grove helps with response by their emergency medical services and police and fire assistance. Because of that kind of help, the Park Service at Timpanogos was able to drop one each permanent and seasonal law enforcement positions to meet limits imposed by past budget cuts and sequestration. (There are no longer any NPS protection rangers at Timpanogos Cave. However, several of the monument’s seasonal interpreters are certified emergency medical technicians, and one is an expert in cave rescue.)
Every year, Superintendent Ireland told me, all the partner agencies meet to present lists of projects and operations they need to try to fund. The money is then divided among them – although, to be sure, there is never enough to go all the way around. But at least the most important needs are usually covered, with the Forest Service receiving the lion’s share simply because they actually carry the heaviest load. With about 1.2 million visits per year, the Pleasant Grove District of Uinta National Forest is one of the most heavily used areas of all our national forests. On any summer weekend, about 6,000 vehicles travel over Highway 92 each Saturday and Sunday.
Every year, about 120,000 people visit Timpanogos Cave National Monument. Of those, about 75,000 to 80,000 tour the cave. When you stop to consider that the cave is closed in winter months, that makes the busy season at relatively tiny Timpanogos (actually three small caves joined by man-made tunnels) really busy! Another thousand or so more are local folks who come just to hike the steep, mile-and-a-half-long trail that climbs 1,092 feet in elevation to the cave’s entrance to try to stay in good shape. They often come two or three times a week and may hike the trail more than once each time they do.
Squeezed into the bottom of a very narrow canyon, the monument faces some especially vexing space challenges. Planning for the future is not going to be easy. There is a current plan to build a joint USFS/NPS visitor center outside the canyon in Pleasant Grove. Funding hasn’t happened yet, though. Highway 92 literally runs right through the visitor center parking lot. You can imagine the scene there. Proposals for installing a shuttle system meet with a number of other questions in addition to the old one of funding it.
Rockfalls from the cliff directly above the visitor center are constant threats. Jim showed me a hole in the open beam sunscreen above the visitor center deck where a rock a little larger than a man’s head crashed through. It took out a 2 x 8 wood beam and embedded itself in a metal bench on the deck. Providing cast iron umbrellas to visitors is probably not a workable solution. But before visitors may start up the trail to the cave, they must stop for a safety talk presented by rangers. Part of the talk covers what to do if caught by a rockfall.
Those safety checks, by the way, are conducted sometimes by NPS rangers and sometimes by people wearing USFS togs. The Forest Service has asked to have some of their people working at the cave visitor center because it’s about the only place where the public may come in contact with representatives of that agency. In return, the park provides a couple of positions to collect fees at the canyon’s entrance.
Another cooperative effort is provided twice each week when NPS rangers from the cave provide visitor interpretive services at Cascade Spring located on the forest several miles from the cave. Because the Park Service is more geared toward interpretation, the Forest Service asked for help in educating visitors to the spring about the importance of watershed protection.
Timpanogos Cave will be closing early this fall to allow some necessary trail construction. Permanent safety walls of native rock will be installed and work will be done to improve a “rock trap” that tries to prevent loose rocks from cascading all the way down the cliff. So if you want to visit the cave, you’ll need to get here before September 30. That work is a project funded largely by the fees collected at the canyon’s entrance stations.
This is the first year that Timpanogos Cave has worked with Recreation.gov to provide reservations for cave tours. It’s working very well. Jim says he’s seen a big difference just in the parking lot. It used to be filled early every morning with cars full of frustrated people who were clogging the visitor center in hopes of landing scarce tour tickets. Now they know that when they get here, their tickets will be waiting for them. There are fewer frustrated people taking out their frustrations on his staff inside. It’s been necessary to do quite a bit of educating people in the closest cities, but a lot of media outreach is becoming more successful and feedback from city leaders is becoming more and more favorable.
As more and more people crowd into the valley and seek recreation each weekend and evening, pressure on these resources will become unbelievable. Even though I’m sure the friendly rivalry that always existed between us parkies and the tree farmers continues, it’s awfully good to see this kind of bureaucratic win-win taking place as good people work together to help protect some of our most priceless places for now and into the future. So I need to ask those questions again. Is it fair? Is it worth it?