Cliff Lake

Boaters enjoy a day on Cliff Lake in July 2020.

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A proposal to increase fees at dozens of recreation sites across the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is in the works.

The Forest Service is proposing increased fees at 17 campgrounds, 24 cabins, three group picnic areas, one group campsite and the Crystal Park picnic and mineral collection area in the Pioneer Mountains.

New fees may also be adopted at 22 campgrounds, seven day-use boat launch sites, one group campground and six rental cabins in the national forest. Those six rental cabins are new to the Forest Service’s reservation system.

The public can comment on a list of proposed changes to fees online, by email or by mail through Nov. 1.

The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest’s proposal is going out for comments months after officials approved fee hikes at cabins, lookouts, campgrounds and ski trails throughout the neighboring Custer Gallatin National Forest closer to Bozeman.

Catherine McRae, a spokesperson for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, said officials haven’t increased recreation fees across the national forest since the late 1990s or early 2000s.

That’s partly because agency employees who work on the area’s recreation projects also have to assist with forest fires in the summer — a very time-consuming task, according to McRae.

“It’s a beast that feeds on itself,” McRae said. “With less money you have fewer resources. With fewer resources you can’t go through this process.”

Unlike other sources of funding, nearly all of the money raised from recreation fees — about 95% — goes directly back into the national forest. New and increased fees help to fund maintenance, operations and improved amenities at various sites, McRae said.

For example, money from the fee hikes may allow the agency to add new hookups for water in recreation cabins, install picnic tables at sites, replace stone fire rings with iron fire rings, set up bear-proof food storage containers, resurface roads and maintain toilets, she said.

Prioritizing stewardship of recreation sites is especially important now because of a significant uptick in visitation that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to McRae.

“As public use opened up during the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw a drastic increase in use,” she said. “When we start to see that kind of use, it’s very beneficial for us — to the extent that we can — to provide infrastructure that guarantees positive experiences on public lands.”

At about 3.35 million acres, the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is Montana’s largest. It stretches through eight counties, but is unique in that nearby towns aren’t as large.

The lack of major population centers means there is less infrastructure for visitors off of public land. That’s part of why the national forest is addressing increased use now, according to McRae.

Following the public comment period, the Forest Service may tailor the fee proposal based on public feedback. Then they’ll present it to two resource advisory committees.

If the resource advisory committees decide to send it through some more steps, the new fees and fee hikes could go into effect in 2022, McRae said.

In the national forest’s Madison Ranger District surrounding Ennis, the changes could affect cabins, campgrounds and day use areas where people launch boats.

Under the proposal, people who stay at the Cottonwood, Mill Creek and Potosi campgrounds would pay a new $12 nightly fee. That new fee would be $15 at the Branham Lakes and Bear Creek campgrounds.

At all five campgrounds, costs would increase $5 per extra vehicle.

Visitors would also, for the first time, have to pay a daily fee of $5 to park a vehicle at the Cliff Lake or Wade Lake day use areas, where boats are launched.

Due to a sudden and rapid increase in visitation, the Forest Service is now requiring online reservations for people to stay at some sites in the Cliff Point, Wade Lake and Madison River campgrounds. Reservation costs, however, haven’t increased.

Those three popular campgrounds are not listed under the new fee hike proposal.

Fees to stay at the West Fork and Black Butte cabins in the Gravelly Range and the Antone Station in the Snowcrest Range would increase to $45 per night. It now costs visitors between $25 and $35 to reserve the three cabins for a night.

Prices for reserving the Vigilante Cabin along the Ruby River southwest of Ennis for a night would increase from $50 to $75 under the proposal.

In addition, nightly fees ranging from $45 to $75 would be adopted at four recreation cabins in the Madison Ranger District for the first time.

All four cabins — the Landon Cabin on the West Fork of the Madison River, the Wall Creek Ranger Station south of Ennis, the Divide Cabin in the south Snowcrest Range and the Mill Creek Rider Cabin east of Sheridan in the Tobacco Root range — are new to the agency’s reservation system.

A lot of background work goes into studying recreation sites and designing fee proposals, so agency officials can’t raise fees beyond what’s listed in the proposal at this point, McRae said. They can only “lower them and back away.”

The Forest Service is taking the area’s poverty lines into account. Officials want to make sure people of various income levels will still be able to enjoy their public lands, according to McRae.

“We want to hear from people,” she said. “It would be nice to see support here, but we want feedback to make sure these recreation experiences work for the public from where they are at.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at or at 582-2628.

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