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Commission wants WNF to rethink fee increases

Cost is driving away visitors, local officials say

Lawrence County Commissioners agreed Thursday to send a letter to Wayne National Forestry officials, asking them to scrap fee increases enacted three years ago for its ATV and horseback riding trails.

In the letter, addressed to Ironton District Ranger Tim Slone, commissioners called the fee structure “unfair and excessive,” and pointed out that the fees at the WNF are not comparable to fees charged elsewhere regionally for the same services by other public and private entities. They asked Slone to pass their concerns along to his superiors who approved the rate hike.

In the letter, commissioners pointed out that use of the forest trails is declining and has been since the increased rates went into effect in 2008. In 2006, 21,500 permits were sold to people from 41 states. To date in 2011, 6,100 permits have been sold, the letter said. The decline has been steady each year in between.

“This just tells you people aren’t coming and they aren’t willing to pay that kind of price,” Commission President Les Boggs said as he read the letter aloud during Thursday’s commission meeting.

In the letter, commissioners expressed concern that the fee structure has inhibited tourism and recreation.

“For example, one local horse camp business has reported many cancellations or refused inquiries once visitors discover they must pay $45 per person,” the letter said.

Commissioners asked for a three-year moratorium of the fee collection. At the end of the moratorium, they want to see the fees reduced or eliminated.

They also asked for information about what is done with the money collected from these fees.

In the letter, commissioners pointed out that while forestry officials have said in the past their rates are comparable to the Hatfield-McCoy Trails in southern West Virginia, the two trail systems are not similar. The Hatfield-McCoy trails are larger (500 miles versus 69 miles) and are open all year round; the WNF trails are only open April-December.

Noting that the forest service owns approximately 25 percent of Lawrence County lands, Commissioner Bill Pratt likened the relationship between the WNF and the rest of the county as “like a marriage.” He said the communication is key to a good relationship and was pleased Boggs had written the letter to the forest service. He said compromise was another key to a successful relationship and he hoped the two sides could find a compromise to this.

“It’s become cost prohibitive for our residents to use these lands,” Pratt said.

Slone said the Forest Service is aware that the use of the trails has been declining, a result that may be tied to the economy and other factors. Slone said he forwarded the letter to his supervisors and that this is an issue the leadership for the Wayne is analyzing.

“I have a good working relationship with the county commissioners. I respect them and understand their concerns,” he said. “… We take their request very seriously and will take a hard look at all the options.”