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For University of Utah student Christopher Mertin, Salt Lake County's Cottonwood Canyons are a relief valve, allowing students and other cash-strapped nature lovers to recharge their batteries — hiking, climbing, fishing, cycling or just chilling in a beautiful alpine setting hardly a half hour from the city.

"We don't have a lot of money, and being able to get out of the city is not only physically important but also mentally," said Mertin, a second-year graduate student from Florida. "You can go to the gym, but it is different doing it out in nature."

But visiting the two canyons may cost a little next year under a proposal by the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest to charge a fee for cars to park at developed recreation sites.

While many regular visitors support a $6 fee, Mertin and others say it would discourage people from enjoying public lands.

The Forest Service "would be inhibiting visitation from a segment of the population for which it should be attempting to make our forests more open and inviting," wrote Christopher Lish in comments solicited by the agency. "At a time that the USFS is endeavoring to make itself relevant to young adults and those who live in cities, this move to increase fees is counterproductive."

But the national forest needs money to provide and maintain facilities to accommodate the throngs of visitors who flood the canyon year round, according to Matt Lane, the forest's trails manager shepherding the fee proposal. Visitors have overwhelmed some spots such as Silver Lake, which saw 9,000 people pass through its interpretive center on Labor Day, yet the forest lacks a revenue stream to serve these people with picnic tables, bathrooms and other amenities.

Officials are now reviewing 275 public comments, which are fairly evenly split between opposing and supporting a fee. Either way, the commenters were united in a love for the canyons that harbor world-class skiing and wildflower viewing at their heads, framed by towering limestone and granite cirques.

"The Forest Service has not made up its mind. We are looking at every comment in detail. There is some substantial feedback that may make us adjust our proposal should we decide to go forward with the fee," Lane said.

Such fees are authorized under the 2004 Federal Land Recreation Enhancement Act, recently reauthorized through 2018. Such fees have been implemented for Mirror Lake Highway and American Fork Canyon — also part of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest — as well as many other recreation hot spots managed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management around the West.

Last year, 5.2 million visited the Wasatch Mountains' tri-canyon area, covering Little and Big Cottonwood and Mill Creek canyons — more than the visitation to Yellowstone National Park or the entire Utah state parks system.

While national and state parks often charge hefty entrance fees, the Cottonwood canyons have no revenue-generating mechanism for recreational users other than campground fees. Mill Creek has had a $3-per-vehicle day-use fee since 1991, but that program is administered by Salt Lake County, not the Forest Service.

"These are the crown jewel canyons of Utah," Lane said, noting features like Sundial Peak and Lake Blanche appear on materials promoting the Salt Lake City area as a destination for outdoor recreation. "They need to have the recreational experience that we are advertising."

That experience is being compromised by inadequate parking and recreational amenities, according to James Keener, who owns a cabin near Silver Lake.

"There is no question the Forest Service needs the income," said Keener, a U. math professor. "There is an unbelievable amount of traffic in the summer and enormous parking problems. We don't have enough to handle all the people. We have to do something, not to discourage people from coming, but to make it so their visit is memorable and positive. We need to find ways to get people out of their cars and not have single-occupancy vehicles up the canyon."

Some pro-fee commenters hoped a fee would "keep riffraff out of the mountains," but that's an elitist view, said Kitty Benzar, an anti-fee activist who lives in Durango, Colo.

"Nobody should have to pay a fee to hike a trail. I don't think a family should have to pay $5 to sit at a picnic table for an hour. The whole point of public lands is we all have access, rich and poor," said Benzar, co-founder of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition. "We need volunteers, voluntary donations. Charging a fee is a coward's way out. It's not confronting the issues."

As currently proposed, the $6 fee would apply to only those who park a vehicle in destinations with developed amenities, namely Big Cottonwood's Mill D/Cardiff, Mill B South, Silver Lake, Spruces winter trailhead, Guardsman Pass trailhead and Donut Falls; and Little Cottonwood's White Pine and Temple Quarry, as well as the Catherine's Pass and Cecret Lake trailheads in Albion Basin.

The pass would be valid for three days and could also be used at American Fork and Mirror Lake, which have had fees in place for the past few years. In 2014, those charges raised $1.2 million, revenue that helps cover the cost of ski-trail grooming along Beaver Creek, renovation of the historic Theater in the Pines, and improved belay platforms at the Division Wall climbing area.

Lane said he did not know how much revenue a Cottonwood fee would generate.

Regular visitors to the Cottonwood canyons would be able to use the $45 annual pass that covers American Fork Canyon and Mirror Lake Highway. The $80 Interagency pass, which covers national parks, also would be honored at the Cottonwoods.

Some commenters suggested the Forest Service include a cheaper $3 one-day pass and cautioned that fees targeting only developed sites would push more people to the undeveloped sites, such as Butler and Mineral forks in Big Cottonwood or Grizzly Gulch in Little Cottonwood.

"There are places like the Willows and Bear Trap that have seen a lot of use this summer. The road is lined with cars on both sides," Keener said. "You have shifted the problem, not solved it."

The Forest Service should make all sites subject to fees, he said, and could do so simply by putting portable toilets in undeveloped areas. "Call it an improvement and charge the fee," he said.

That has been tried in other states, much to the annoyance of Benzar, who said she has seen the Forest Service do what she considers gaming the system by installing improvements in inappropriate places.

"If they parachute a table into trailhead and call it a picnic area, that's ridiculous ... people don't go there to picnic, they go there to hike," Benzar said. "They use the pretense of those amenities to erect a paywall."

Twitter: @brianmaffly