TWRA Wants Cyclists to Pay for Using Urban Wilderness Trails
Forks of the River WMA Trail Photo: Diana Bogan
The 12.5-mile trail, and its 40 miles of secondary trails, is helping make Knoxville a regional destination for mountain bikers. Last week, however, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission approved requiring a “high impact conservation permit" for mountain biking, horseback riding and ATV riding on the state’s wildlife management areas.
A week later, no one at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) could verify the exact amount that the board had approved.
The fee will be $12.50 for one day of wildlife management area access, or $61 for an annual pass.
For out-of-state visitors, that cost jumps to about $30.50 for a day or $191 for a year. These fees will be by far the highest of the few Southeastern states that charge for such usage of wildlife management areas. Agency officials did not respond to questions about how the amount of the permit cost was picked.
Fee a "big deterrent"In Knoxville, the new permits are set to be required at the popular Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area, known for its amazing July sunflower display. Forks of the River incorporates a key section of Knoxville’s premier South Loop biking trail, and the WMA is also home to a well-used portion of the city’s Will Skelton Greenway. Both flow seamlessly into other parts of the trail system.
“How do you know you’re across a particular property line and now have to pay?” asked Joe Walsh, Knoxville Parks and Recreation director. He called the fee amounts “really cost-prohibitive.”
“The urban wilderness trails have been promoted statewide and nationally, and we don’t need to send the signal that you need to lay out some big bucks to use them,” he said.
Brian Hann, a cyclist who lives near the WMA and serves as vice president on the executive board of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association, said he and other cyclists use the area heavily because there’s no other way to complete the South Loop.
“It’s our concern that (the permit cost) will discourage any kind of tourism coming to Knoxville to ride our urban wilderness,” he said. “It’s a big deterrent.”
The Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association sent comments to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency about the permit proposal, objecting to the cost of out-of-state permits as well as the state’s decision to lump cyclists with ATV and horseback riders, which they argue have a larger impact on trails and wildlife.
But Matthew Cameron, TWRA regional information coordinator, said in an email that the state might still consider exempting some WMA’s from the new permit. Until June, the agency will accept comments regarding the permit at email@example.com.
Fees meant to spread costs
The new initiative was an effort to spread the cost of maintaining wildlife management areas among more types of visitors, Cameron said.
Until now, hunters and fishermen have borne the entire expense of enhancing these properties for wildlife. State wildlife agency funding comes almost exclusively from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses paired with matching funds from federal taxes on related equipment. (As an aside, the wildlife commission also voted to increase the cost of hunting and fishing licenses for the first time in a decade.)
Local cyclists and trail boosters say they don’t object to the concept of paying a user fee. “As a steward of public lands, sometimes you’ve got to pony up,” said Matthew Kellogg, president of the Appalachian Mountain Bike Association.
But they are concerned about the amount and whether it can be collected in a practical way. “The difficulty for (the wildlife agency) is how you do that, especially permits for folks coming through for one day,” said Carol Evans, executive director of the Legacy Parks Foundation, which has worked closely with the wildlife agency on trail development at Forks of the River. “They are open to conversations about how to go about it in a way that doesn’t discourage people.”
State wildlife officials did not respond to questions about whether they are considering a different approach at Forks of the River.
Kellogg said he is hopeful that the club and the city could work out a lump payment to the state Wildlife Resources Agency in lieu of charging the fee to individual users. Walsh said he thinks the city would be open to the possibility.
Or the state could give credit for the money the bike club spends on the trail system.
For example, the club recently approved spending $20,000 to build a 2-mile trail on the western perimeter of the WMA, and Kellogg says he thinks the total cost will exceed that. Legacy Parks might help with funding, he said.
This trail would create a full perimeter trail around the property which could remain open to cyclists and hikers year-round, even at times when the interior is closed to all but hunters, Hann said.
"The concept is fairly foreign"
In many ways, Forks of the River differs from a typical wildlife management area. While most WMAs are far enough from towns to require a planned car trip, Forks of the River is next to dense neighborhoods. Many users, including Hann and Kellogg, bike or jog there from home to enjoy the greenway and trails that wind through woods and fields hugging the French Broad and Tennessee rivers.
“I think the concept is fairly foreign to have to buy a year pass to ride a bike trail in an urban area,” Hann said.
And while hunters are the primary users at most wildlife management areas, wildlife officials have indicated hunters amount to less than 1 percent of the visitors at Forks, Hann said.
Cyclists contribute nothing at many WMAs, but the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club has contributed considerable money and labor to Forks of the River, which is operated using a unique memorandum of agreement between the club, the state and the Legacy Parks Foundation.
“It’s the only sort of arrangement like that in the state,” Evans said of the four-year partnership. “From our standpoint, it has worked really well.”
Legacy Parks and the bike club pay to build and maintain the trails and provide trails signs, the state agency manages planting and clearing, and all three groups work together on long-term planning and cooperation between user groups.
For example, when vandals strewed nails on trails last year, Legacy Parks and the bike club informed the wildlife agency and took photos to help with the investigation. Then Legacy Parks took the lead in publicizing the problem and ways to combat it.
Few southeast states charges feesIn the Southeast, only Mississippi and Georgia appear to charge anyone but hunters to visit wildlife management areas.
In Mississippi, which began requiring user permits for WMAs in 2007, even out-of-state visitors pay no more than $30 for an annual pass. Neither Mississippi nor Georgia appears to distinguish between types of visitors; the fee is required for everyone except hunters. Both Georgia and Mississippi also offer a discounted group permit price that allows a big family to visit more affordably.
Georgia charges the same for residents and non-residents. A 3-day “Georgia Outdoor Recreational Pass” costs $3.50 per person, or $19 for a year’s pass. The pass is required at only a portion of the state’s wildlife management areas.
Ted Will, assistant chief of game management for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said sales of the pass generated about $200,000 in revenue during 2014. Although this was slightly less than anticipated, the state has not heard that usage of the WMAs has declined because of the fee, Wills aid.
When it comes to the new Tennessee permit, Kellogg and Hann said many cyclists don’t mind paying if the money goes back to trail maintenance
However, that’s unlikely in this case. “I understand none of that fee is going to come to the trail,” Kellogg said. “That’s going to go to insurance and diesel” and all the other basic operating costs of the agency, he said.
In Georgia, the money raised is spent exclusively on projects that enhance or maintain WMA recreational options unrelated to hunting, such as trails or picnic areas, Will said.
— S. Heather Duncan
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