JOHN DAY - The Malheur National Forest and other national forests are re-evaluating their mission on the types of recreation they offer. In the era of declining funding, the forest service is looking to put their spending to the best use. In this process, the fees it charges at some sites for recreational use will increase, but not by as much as some people might fear. These increases will be used to insure a safe and healthy experience for users.

"First and foremost for me, what it's about is providing safe, healthy facilities for visitors who come to use the facilities on the national forest," said Jennifer Harris, Malheur National Forest Public Affairs Officer. "And to do that, we have to get our facility management in line with the resources that we have available to us."

The process is called Recreation Site Facility Master Planning, or RSFMP. The project was done in-house, by analyzing data gathered by Malheur staff on how the recreation facilities on the forest are used by visitors. This process took about a year and a half. Similar processes are being done on national forests across the nation, as officials determine the best way to spend the increasingly limited funds available.

"Recreation, really, is how most people interact with their national forests," said Harris. "And so it's a big deal for us."

The data on the Malheur Forest showed that over 75 percent of visitors were either adults over the age of 40 or children 16 and younger. Much of the time, the visitors were older adults sharing activities with younger relatives, such as turkey hunting. Another interesting fact was that only about 28 percent of visitors camped overnight in a forest camping facility.

"They don't expect us, necessarily, to have some random acre out in the middle of the forest out somewhere be guaranteed safe and healthy," said Harris. "But when they come to a facility what we're inviting them to with signing and maps and information, and hand-pumps for water, and toilet facilities, they expect those to be basically clean and safe."

Therefore, based on the recreational opportunities on the forest, the type of environment and the types of recreation that visitors used, the forest will bases the percentage of time and money placed on that area or niche. This way to help focus how the funds are spent. The primary uses include all types of hunting; driving for pleasure; viewing scenery and wildlife; relaxing; gathering forest products, such as mushrooms or firewood; hiking; and snowmobiling.

Different setting on the forest, including wilderness areas, concentrated use areas, and open space, each offer different opportunities for recreation, and different demands for facilities.

"We need to set our priorities that align with that niche. What we want to do is put our resources into the kinds of facilities that best support the unique kind of recreation opportunity that we can best provide," said Harris. "We think that our dispersed users want to come out, and want it to be relatively undeveloped. The concentrated use areas can have more developed facilities."

The priorities set by the forest include operating and maintaining sites to a standard in a way that is financially sustainable; reducing deferred maintenance by 25% over a five-year period; focusing the resources on sites that conform most closely with the niche; and maintaining and enhancing customer satisfaction at those sites.

Each site was ranked, to see how it compared to the master plan. The staff also looked at improvements that could be made, or downsizing that could be done to save money at sites with lower use or an excess of deferred maintenance. In some cases that may mean shortening the operating season for some facilities. This does not mean the facility will be closed outside the operating season, but that it will not be serviced by the Forest Service outside the season. Improvements were recommended at 30 out of 58 sites.

"Some sites will be downsized, due to use below the capacity of the site; yet because the site is still being used, it is not feasible to close it," said Harris. "Some sites will be reduced to the lowest development scale. It may be as simple as pulling out a picnic table."

Part of the proposal is to either start charging fees, or increase existing fees, at about 29% of the recreation sites. All fees stay on the forest, to help maintain the sites. At the sites that are currently charging fees for use, the fees will increase by about 25%. For example, the cost of camping at Magone Lake will increase from $10 to $13 per day.

Two sites are slated for possible closure: Slide Creek Campground, nine miles south of Prairie City on FS Road 6001; and Crescent Campground, 17 miles southeast of Prairie City on County Road 62. Harris said they would not be closed before 2010, at the earliest.

"Part of the thinking there, is we are right in between two fast-growing areas, Treasure Valley and Central Oregon. And we're kind of projecting out for five or six or seven years use, and we're not that sure we're not going to need it," she said. "Let's just hedge our bets for a few years."

Harris said she expected to have a lot of discussion with the community regarding the Canyon Meadows Campground, south of Canyon City, which is slated to be decommissioned, meaning services will be reduced, due to vandalism and lack of use.

"The point is, it (the nearby reservoir) doesn't hold water, so it's not a nice water-based site, so people don't really have a reason to go there," she said. "I want to have lots of discussions with any group of people about it."

Before any of the sites are reduced or closed, the Forest Service will post the sites to be affected, to allow time for input by users. A NEPA analysis may also have to be done, to make sure that more problems are not going to be made by closing a site than would be by simply reducing services.

Also, any changes will have to be approved by a Resource Advisory Committee that will be set up in the Pacific Northwest Region. The main task of the committee is to review the fee program and to make recommendations on whether fee increases should be allowed, or whether new fees should be allowed.

The project on the Malheur is just now at a point where staff members are ready to accept input from the community about their tentative results.

"I really want people to know that this is not a done deal. It's not cast in stone. It's an analysis and some proposals, and we'd sure like to hear from some folks," Harris said. "It really is all about the need to provide safe, healthy, accessible facilities for folks, so that we meet their expectations when they're out there, and they can have a good time, and not have some bad thing happen to them."

If you would like to comment on the proposed management actions in this story, contact Jennifer Harris at the Malheur National Forest at 575-3000.

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