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Legislators swat down $12 admission fee at DuPont

DuPont Forest Supervisor Jason Guidry speaks to the Friends of DuPont Forest at the Transylvania Public Library on Tuesday, April 19. DuPont Forest Supervisor Jason Guidry speaks to the Friends of DuPont Forest at the Transylvania Public Library on Tuesday, April 19.

Henderson County legislators have successfully stalled — and may have killed — a proposal by state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler to impose admission fees at DuPont State Forest as high as $12 a car.

A mecca for mountain biking, hiking and waterfall viewing, DuPont is by far the most visited state forest in North Carolina. It drew 683,000 visitors last year, nearly seven times the number that visited when it first opened in 2002. Visits spiked in 2013 when fans of The Hunger Games flocked to the forest where the adventure was filmed. But even without the added pressure of a box office smash, tourism is growing steadily, outstripping the park’s ability to manage parking, bathroom demands and habitat preservation.
“If you really look at the numbers at DuPont and how many go there, we’re up close to 700,000 folks,” said Brian Haines, a spokesman for the N.C. Forest Service. “We really need some infrastructure in there to handle all that. We’d really like to get that infrastructure in place and have the legislative support to do that.”
Legislative support was decidedly absent last week when lawmakers first got wind of the proposed fees.
Jason Guidry, the forest supervisor at DuPont, presented a PowerPoint to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources last week that detailed the fees. They included $8 per vehicle charge Monday through Thursday at High Falls and Hooker Falls — the most common access points to reach the three waterfalls — and $6 per car charges at Lake Imaging, Fawn Lake, Guion Farm, Corn Mill Shoals and other trailheads (with no weekend differential). Weekend charges were $12 at High Falls and Hooker Falls. The fee schedule also added $20 and $30 charges for buses and large vehicles. An annual pass would be available for $30 for North Carolina residents and $70 for out-of-state visitors.
The forest service calculated the cost at $2.31 per person based on average car occupancy and said that was in line with other fees charged by the U.S. Forest Service, private recreation areas and state parks.

State Rep. Chris Whitmire said he was aware of the needs at DuPont brought on by its popularity but opposed to fees.
“If they are going to do a fee structure, one, Henderson and Transylvania county residents pay property taxes that provide a significant number of essential services to DuPont,” he said. “I do not want my constituents to be taxed and charged fees at the same time. While DuPont is a wonderful place, local residents do have the aggravation at times of large groups of people or bicycles or people leaving trash.”
“We had to flex some muscle” to stop the fees, at least for now. State Sen. Tom Apodaca and Rep. Chuck McGrady, both Hendersonville Republicans, to urge a delay of the fees, he said. Troxler pulled the fee schedule from a state Agriculture Board agenda last week.
Whitmire said he would oppose any fee structure that didn’t give free admission to Henderson and Transylvania residents and discounted admission to North Carolinians.
“As wonderful as DuPont is, they need to vet the how-to of this fee structure,” he said.
McGrady said he got word late that the Agriculture Department was considering the fees.
“At that point I talked to the department’s liaison and I indicated that they may have gotten it right but I wasn’t sure,” he said. “They knew of Rep. Whitmire’s concerns about it. I counseled the commissioner to please hold off and give us a little more time to look at this and I was very grateful that that’s what Commissioner Troxler did.”
Imposing fees is complicated for several reasons.
“I don’t know what the logistics of trying to do that is,” he said. “This is not like a national park where you come in one of two entrances. There are six different entry points and hundreds of different contact points. My constituents in principle don’t mind paying some money if they know that the money is going right back into the state forest but that’s not how things get done.”
McGrady said he understands there are mounting needs at DuPont because of the heavy use. He told the Agriculture Department’s lobbyist: “Rather than imposing a fee system with the goal to raise whatever amount of money you need maybe what you ought to do if you really have the need is to ask us for the money.”
Although the Legislature has authorized what it called “dynamic pricing and revenue programs,” there’s no precedent for charging to use a state forest. Dynamic pricing was defined in a 2013 law applying to the Department of Cultural Resources as the adjustment of admission fees to reflect “market forces, seasonal variations and special events with the intent to maximize revenues.”
“DuPont is unique,” said McGrady, one of the key figures who worked on saving the land from development in the late 1990s. “It’s not a state park, it’s not a state forest. It’s a hybrid.” The land straddles two counties and is accessible by public roads that cannot be gated off.
The DuPont Forest master plan, completed last year, recommended improvements including better parking lots, new restrooms and trashcans and water access at parking lots. The master plan identified admission fees as a potential source of revenue to fund improvements.
Guidry, the forest supervisor, described the fee structure to the Friends of DuPont Forest during its annual meeting Tuesday night and urged the members to support the revenue source.

"We need day-use fees," he said. "I'm looking at charging more where we have the most use. If you come to the forest on the Fourth of July maybe you don't use Hooker Falls. Maybe you go to Fawn Lake and pay less. I want the price to be reasonable and comparable to ohter public lands."

Figures show that 50 percent of the forest users come from North Carolina, 18 percent from South Carolina and 9 percent from Florida. "People are coming that don't necessarily pay" for the forest operations through taxes.

The Friends of Dupont Forest anted up $50,000 in seed money for restrooms at Hooker Falls, identified as one of the highest priority needs. Guidry unveiled a slide with the sticker shock price of $465,000 for the facility — $50,000 for architectural plans, $225,000 for the building, $125,000 for wastewater treatment, $20,000 for a wel, $15,000 for paving and signage and $5,000 for testing. With the use that is projected, "you're right on the border of needing a wastewater treatment plant," he said.

Guidry told the forest supporters that as long as the Legislature had put "dynamic pricing" on the table, he would "put my best foot forward" in advocating for it.

"Charging fees is definitely a big initiative and it's not going to be easy," he said. "But our problems are not easy. We have big needs, in my opinion millions of dollars worth over time."