Hills, forests and sandstone formations in the Shawnee National Forest combine to create one of the most dramatic landscapes in Illinois.

Not too many years ago, the notion of a user fee at the Shawnee National Forest seemed unthinkable.

Now, it is an idea whose time has come.

Laura Lecher, the Shawnee's recreation, engineering and lands staff officer, said a $5 per-vehicle fee has been proposed for six sites on the forest — the Garden of the Gods recreation area observation trail; the Pounds Hollow beach; the Johnson Creek boat launch at Kinkaid Lake; the Pomona boat launch on Cedar Lake; the Little Grand Canyon trailhead; and the Bell Smith Springs interpretive site.

Visitors would have the option of purchasing a $30 annual pass. If adopted, the new fee structure would go into effect July 1, 2020.

The U.S. Forest Service will accept public feedback on the proposal through early December. Then, a citizen's advisory committee will consider the fee structure. The U.S. Forest Service's regional forester will make the final decision, most likely next spring.

There are several reasons to favor the proposal.

First and foremost, parks and forests remain underfunded nationally.

Lenise Lago, the associate chief of the U.S. Forest Service, reported in June there is a deferred maintenance backlog of $5.2 billion. By comparison, the forest service's budget for infrastructure improvement and maintenance in fiscal year 2018 was just $449 million.

The bulk of fees collected by the Shawnee National Forest would remain in Southern Illinois. According to the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, 95% of the fees must remain in the forest to be used for operation and maintenance, facility and program improvements at recreation sites.

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Anyone who visits the Shawnee National Forest on a regular basis is aware of areas in need of maintenance. Lecher said the Shawnee began a review of 100 day-use sites in 2017 and examined the costs of trash pickup, signage, road maintenance, trail maintenance and fencing.

Second, entrance fees to federal lands aren't unusual.

Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge charges an annual fee. Visitors to national parks are subject to entrance fees. Day-use fees at other national forests are not uncommon.

The fee structure is reasonable.

The math is simple — if there are two people in the car, it would cost just $2.50 apiece to view the splendor of Garden of the Gods. Throw in a couple friends, and the price drops to $1.25 each, less than the cost of a soft drink.

The $30 annual fee is quite reasonable for locals who visit the forest regularly. Plus, the vast majority of the forest is still accessible at no cost.

Plus, a user fee seems the fairest way to defray the costs of maintaining trails, recreation areas and the forest itself.

The state already has a system in place to collect the funds. It should be easy to add a $30 annual fee to hunting and fishing licenses for anyone choosing to use the state's park system. And, non-consumptive users could pay their fee through the same system.

-- The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan

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