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Edwards seeks study of DuPont Forest admission fees

State Sen. Chuck Edwards wants the state Agriculture Department to study ways to generate revenue at DuPont State Forest, including admission fees that would "favor North Carolina citizens," in order to create "a sustainable income stream to help preserve the protect the forest."

Edwards, who is chair of the Senate committee that steers agriculture spending, planned to file a bill Wednesday that would order the study, due next Feb. 1. In filing the bill, Edwards risks reigniting a debate over fees for admission to the state's most popular recreational forest and whether North Carolina residents would be "double taxed" for its upkeep and improvements. The Agriculture Department's fee proposal died in 2016 when state Rep. Chuck McGrady was able to insert a substantial appropriation into the budget for capital improvements and maintenance.

Popular with hikers, sight-seers and mountain bikers, the forest is managed by the state Department of Agriculture. Three years ago, legislator and forest users pushed back when Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler proposed admission fees ranging from $6 to $12, depending on the day of the week and which parking lot users accessed. The Agriculture Department said the popularity of the forest was taxing the ability of the state Forest Service to accommodate visitors.

Edwards's bill specifically mentions one ongoing problem that forest rangers say is a safety issue. It directs the Agriculture Department to recommend "capital projects and operational changes needed to improve the safety of visitors to the Forest that currently park on the roadside."

The bill would require the Agriculture Department to study in-state and out-of-state models of fee schedules, devise "an entry fee that will favor North Carolina citizens" while charging out-of-state users and ensure that the revenue can only be used for capital improvements and upkeep of the forest.