UPDATE ADDS SUGGESTED FEE AMOUNTS
Congaree National Park, long the best deal in town (free), is considering charging fees to camp, reserve a picnic shelter or take ranger-guided canoe trips through the park.
Even if the changes are approved, parking at the visitor center and hiking in the park will still be free, as would the many ranger-guided hikes and paddling on Cedar Creek using your own gear.
With federal funding cuts this year, however, the National Park Service is taking small steps to raise money through fees.
The park service announced the possible fees on Wednesday and will begin a 30-day public comment period on the proposal on Sept. 3. Public meetings on the subject are scheduled for 6-8 p.m. Sept. 5 at Richland Library Main at 1431 Assembly St., Columbia, and 5:30-7:30 p.m. Sept. 10 at Richland Library Eastover at 608 Main St., Eastover.
The changes also are designed to reduce the park from undercutting private businesses that offer services such as camping and canoe tours, according to the park service.
Spots in the free ranger-led canoe trips often were reserved by phone within minutes of becoming available. Not only did a ranger lead the trip, but the park provided canoes and all of the paddling gear.
Although the ranger-guided tours are very popular with park visitors, the program is not sustainable long term with the parks current staffing and budget levels, according to the park service.
The suggested fees are $10 for individual tent sites at the Bluff Campground, $15 for individual tent sites and $25 for group tent sites at the Longleaf Campground, $40 for picnic pavilion rental and $25 for guided canoe trips.
Renting a canoe at local outfitters usually costs about $40 a day. Guided tours on Cedar Creek cost around $60 per person.
Jesse Koch, manager at River Runner Outdoor Center, said it never made sense to him that the park offered those services for free. River Runner always has been a backer of the park, offering free canoe trips during park special events before the park service began providing that service. Koch thinks the park could stop offering guided paddling tours altogether, instead putting the creek trip guiding rights out for bids from private companies.
There are no major private campgrounds near the park. Currently, tent camping is allowed at two sites near the parks visitors center for free. Those sites have fire rings, picnic tables and access to a water spigot. The restrooms at the visitor center are a short walk away.
Primitive backcountry camping is allowed in the rest of the park for free, and the proposal wouldnt change that.
The parks picnic pavilion, with 10 picnic tables under shelter, is next to the parking lot. Its open to anyone on a first-come basis now, and groups often ask if they can reserve it for their use, according to park officials. Under the proposal, the pavilion could be reserved for a fee, but it would be open to the public when not reserved.
Revenue from the fees could be used to improve the camping area or build another picnic shelter or to add new amenities. The park already is in the process of improving its canoe launch on Cedar Creek Landing.
The full proposal is available at http://www.nps.gov/cong/parknews/feeproposal.htm.
People who cant make the public meetings can comment online at http://parkplanning.nps.gov or http://www.nps.gov/cong/parknews/feeproposal.htm.