By Robert Annis
Indiana mountain bikers are upset about a new pay-to-play fee imposed on trails that were built almost entirely with volunteer labor.
Faced with a $4.5 million deficit and crumbling facilities throughout the state, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources recently instituted a variety of new and increased feeds, including a $20 annual off-road cycling permit and a boost in the annual gate pass cost to $50.
Although parks officials say they have been discussing the fees for the last several years, it wasn't until late last month that their proposal was made public. Their plan was promptly met with loud jeers from many in the local mountain biking community who accused the state agency with trying to quickly ram it through with virtually no discussion or study.
For years, Indiana parks have relied mainly on user fees to fund operations; 70 percent of its annual budget comes from user fees, with the balance coming from the state. The 2008 economic downturn saw the budgets for the DNR and other state agencies slashed by up to 50 percent, and although the economy improved, the DNR's state funding remained stagnant.
Few, if any, states require a mountain-bike permit in their state parks. In the Midwest, riders can enter and ride Ohio, Illinois and Kentucky state parks for free; Michigan charges a $10 and $32 annual gate fee pass for residents and out-of-state visitors, respectively.
Paul Arlinghaus, the Hoosier Mountain Bike Association president, said an off-road cycling permit was originally discussed years ago. Mountain bikers wanted to build singletrack in state forests, which have no gate fees at this time; the pay-to-play fee would help generate enough revenue to make the trails worth the state's while.
"We need to make it in the state's best financial interests to continue our relationship," Arlinghaus said. "People say charging bikers a fee isn't fair, but life isn't fair. Sometimes you have to play the cards you're dealt-here in Indiana, that's pay-to-play. If you don't agree, then talk to the state legislature and convince them they need to spend more money on parks."
Despite an estimated budget surplus of nearly $2 billion over the next two years, Indiana has higher priorities than parks, such as paying a marketing and public relations firm $750,000 to rebuild the state's image after the fiasco surrounding the passage of the misguided Religious Freedom Restoration Act earlier this spring.
While $20 a year isn't a large amount-most riders spend more than that on a new pair of socks or post-ride beers-several mountain bikers believe they shouldn't be charged to ride trails that they helped build with little help from the DNR. Andy Williamson, IMBA's Great Lakes Region director, believes most riders are open to a pay-for-play system, assuming the money "enhances the mountain bike experience" at the parks, but the money collected would be funneled into the DNR's general fund, with no additional money being used to help build new trails.
"The money will allow us to keep the parks fully operational, thus allowing a venue for bikes," said DNR spokesperson Phil Bloom.
The DNR anticipates the new fees will raise an extra $5.5 million a year, with $50,000 of that coming from the off-road cycling fee. Without the money, the state would have had to close nine parks, said DNR Director Dan Bortner. Not only will those parks remain open, the new money will allow the DNR to fill 43 positions that have remained vacant for budgetary reasons.
Although equestrians and paddlers must pay their own separate fees, Williamson is quick to point out that both groups have dedicated facilities in various parks, and mountain bikers do not.
"Most of the trails we ride don't even have water," Williamson said. "Volunteer labor from mountain bikers turned Brown County State Park into a destination for riders from all over the Midwest. It's become a big money maker, not only for the DNR, but for all the tourism-related businesses surrounding the park. What's going to happen when all of the out-of-state riders stop showing up?
"As better options begin popping up all over, including just across the border in Kentucky, the Indiana DNR should be thinking about how they maintain their destination status and relevance and not push people away. There is more than just the cost in play here, people are claiming to feel like it is a statement of unwelcomeness or elitism, like a golf course. While a small percentage of mountain bike enthusiasts ride expensive bikes that isn’t everyone."
There would be some exceptions to the proposed fee, notably beginner-level and hard-surface trails would continue to be free to ride. In order to make things easier financially for lower-income riders, the state has proposed that volunteers logging 125 or more hours building or maintaining trails annually can earn a free permit. The return on their investment for the $20 pass? 16 cents an hour-less than most convicts earn while in prison.
The 7.5 miles of trails at Potato Creek, mountain biker Debbie Kulwicki's home park, are currently classified as beginner, meaning they're free to ride. Despite room for many more miles of singletrack, there's no motivation to build more advanced trails that would require a fee, she said, adding that several fellow volunteers have told her they won't continue donating their time if they need to pay to use the trails. Volunteers from around the state have echoed those thoughts.
An informal poll on social media showed overwhelming opposition by out-of-state riders to the fees, who said they would mark Indiana off their travel itineraries.
"The fees are exorbitant. For two people to mountain bike over a three-day weekend would cost between $39 and $57," said Tennessee rider Chrysa Malosh. "If you buy the annual passes, it would cost those same two people $110. The trails at Brown County State Park are amazing, but you can ride Pisgah or DuPont (in North Carolina) for free and have more miles of trail to explore."
Williamson empathizes with parks personnel, but called the sudden push for new and increased fees "an act of desperation." Many mountain bikers believe the proposed fees could actually backfire on the DNR, opening up modest new sources of revenue, but losing potentially tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in out-of-state tourism dollars, as well as thousands of hours of labor from disgruntled volunteers.
"Indiana's funding model is broken," Williamson said. "We believe there are other ways to remedy the DNR's budget woes, and it starts with the legislature. They need to realize what great parks they have, and afer that, change their priorities. There's a reason why people with masters and doctorate degrees are heading to Portland or Asheville to flip burgers for a living. The No.1 amenity millennials want is a healthy, active lifestyle. Trails are a massive part of that."
When asked if he was concerned that the new off-road cycling fee could ultimately have a negative impact, Bloom refused to answer "what-if scenarios."
The $20 off-road cycling fee will go into effect next year. For the first year, riders without passes would likely be given warnings, with citations issued in subsequent years. Bloom hoped riders would self-police their ranks.
A full list of the fee changes can be found here.