New river, campground fees for Breaks Monument

By: 
Jenny Gessaman
Reporter
People mill around canoes that sit partially in a large river.

A group with Lewis and Clark Trail Adventure outfitters prepares to embark from Judith Landing in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.

Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management

Visitors to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument might want to bring cash this summer: Hoping to balance services offered with its budget, the BLM has created new campground and boating fees for portions of the popular outdoor destination.

Judith Landing and Coal Banks Landing now have campground fees, and personal river permit fees will apply between Coal Banks Landing and James Kipp Recreation Area. The monument’s Supervisory Outdoor Recreation Ranger Mark Schaefer summarized the reason and result of the change.

“All of the fees collected go right back into the river management,” he said.

Schaefer listed trash pickup, pumping toilets and buying supplies as examples. He explained managing the monument’s current facilities require more staff and money than the BLM has budgeted for.

“It costs the taxpayers $5,000 to empty the trash at Judith Landing for five months, and even more at James Kipp Recreational Area,” he said.

Schaefer added each of the 22 vault toilets costs $450 to $1200 to empty. While the monument has 14 permanent and seasonal staff members in Fort Benton, Lewistown and Havre, only seven of those deal with river recreation along the area’s 149 miles of river. Schaefer labeled unpaid help as essential to the monument’s operation.

“We can’t provide the service that we do without our volunteers: They are critical to our customer service and success,” he said.

According to Schaefer, the volunteers act as campground hosts at three of the most popular sites, caring for the areas while collecting data and providing visitor assistance.

While fees will start helping with costs this year, Schaefer said they originated with the monument’s 2008 resource management plan. He explained a detailed implementation, including the creation of a fee business plan and a review by a federally appointed council of regional citizens, created an eight-year delay.

The process also created the biggest complaint Schaefer has heard about the new costs: surprise. A tight schedule and federal regulations held any public announcement until February, right before the start of the monument’s busiest season. The information was not posted on the website, and BLM staff are still waiting on fee signs for the landings, according to Schaefer. This creates a problem when the fee is only payable by exact change or check.

“A lot people don’t carry cash when they’re traveling, especially when they go on the river,” he said.

Michael Gregston, owner of Adventure Bound Canoe and Missouri River Outfitters in Fort Benton, agreed the change was not well announced.

“They never really had an opportunity to publicize this properly,” he said. “Maybe they could have done a better job letting the public know.”

Gregston opposes the fees, saying he did not feel represented from the start of the process. Despite the presence of an outfitter on the citizen council, he saw the change as predetermined.

“I fell like it was a foregone conclusion that came from Washington and was forced on the Lewistown Field Office,” Gregston said.

He knew the monument’s outfitter fees did not cover the “excellent service they provide,” but questioned the change in a state that has few river fees. He also disputed the necessity of previous monument costs, including the Missouri Breaks Interpretive Center.

His biggest opposition came out of future concerns.

“I just get nervous about anything that stands between the public and a public resource,” he said.

Gregston is worried cost will turn off local users, particularly families and seniors.

“It’s just something you have to budget for,” he said.

Lewis and Clark Trail Adventures Owner and Outfitter Wayne Fairchild labeled the fees minimal, and said his clients did not mind the change.

“We take people down on a three-day trip, and they don’t mind paying an extra $12 [per person],” he said.

Fairchild was also a member of the citizen council that advised the BLM, and he recalled the conclusion the group drew after national research on river fees.

“The BLM is short of funds, so we needed to charge a minimum of $4 a day to go back into the resource,” he said.

As an outfitter and a council member, Fairchild was adamant about the basics.

“Let’s just keep the resource protected."

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