A new $3 fee at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center brought in less cash in its first year than the U.S. Forest Service anticipated.
But the more than $500,000 it did raise has paid for a number of extras in and around the center.
The visitor center fee is part of a pilot program instituted by the Forest Service and other federal agencies nationwide over the past several years.
Under the program, Congress allowed land managers to collect fees for campgrounds, visitors' centers and similar facilities, keeping most of the money for local programs. The fee program was approved in 1996 for three years and then extended to Sept. 30, 2001.
Last year was the first for the fee program in Juneau, said Don Fisher, assistant director for the Forest Service's Alaska region recreation program.
Fees charged at the glacier visitor center, two Forest Service campgrounds, the large picnic shelter at Auke Village Recreation Area and for helicopter landings on the Juneau Icefield brought in $609,000 last year, he said.
The biggest chunk of that --- $524,000 --- came from the visitor center.
The $609,000 total is less than the approximately $800,000 Forest Service officials anticipated raising in Juneau, Fisher said.
That's probably mostly because the initial estimates were based on requiring all commercial tour companies to collect the fee from passengers before arriving at the glacier, he said.
There was a legal challenge to that requirement, Fisher said. So the Forest Service decided to leave it up to companies whether to make the fee part of their package tour or let passengers decide upon arrival whether they want to pay to come in.
Most of the large commercial operators have opted to tack the $3 fee on to their overall tour charge, Fisher said.
``If no one had prepaid you'd have a line stretched back toward Gastineau Channel of people waiting in line to get into the visitor center,'' he said.
But some of the smaller tour operators leave it up to their passengers whether to pay the fee or simply stand outside and gaze at the glacier.
Some opt for the latter. Fred Garber, visiting this week from Glenside, Pa., said he didn't see a reason to pay $3 to go into the center.
``The beautiful view's from here,'' he said, standing on a paved trail outside the center.
Walter Thompson of Louisville, Ky., also declined to pay $3 to go in. He said he'd already spent $185 for a helicopter flight that allowed him to walk on a glacier.
The Forest Service hears from a few people who are philosophically opposed to paying fees to visit public places, figuring they've already paid taxes, Fisher said. However, he said, ``The vast majority have not complained.''
Ken Bentley from Manchester, England, said he had no problem paying a nominal fee for the visitor center. ``Something like this needs someone to take care of it, and unfortunately that costs money.''
Verda Wright of Salt Lake City, Utah, said the fee was included in her tour package, and she had no problem with it.
``Three dollars, that's not much money, don't you think?'' she said. ``You pay to get into Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon.''
People who don't want to pay the fee can still use the center's bathrooms, visit the gift shop and ask questions of an interpreter outside the center.
The visitor center fee has helped pay for extended hours, additional interpretive staff, trail work, children's programs, machinery to set cross-country ski tracks and operational costs of a new elevator, said Ron Marvin, acting recreation staffer at the Forest Service's Juneau Ranger District.
People previously paid fees for the Mendenhall and Auke Village campgrounds, but now those are part of the new program so the money stays in Juneau, rather than going to the U.S. Treasury. Some of that money is being used to help pay for extra operational costs associated with adding electrical, water and sewer hookups at the Mendenhall campground, Marvin said.
The fee for use of the Auke Rec shelter is paying for cleaning out fire pits and other maintenance work that wouldn't have been done as well without it, Marvin said.
The Forest Service is collecting fees at several other sites in Alaska, such as the Pack Creek bear-viewing area on Admiralty Island and the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center at Portage Glacier.
Altogether in Alaska the Forest Service fee program raised $773,700 in 1999, Fisher said.
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