Initiating a Recreation Fee Program at Congaree National Park
This September we will begin seeking public comment on the proposed addition of recreation amenity fees at Congaree National Park. This will be a new introduction of the Recreation Fee Program to the park. Under this program, fees are collected and used in the park for improvements to existing amenities and/or the addition of new amenities for the benefit of the visiting public. It's our goal to hear public input and address any concerns before implementing a fee program. Subsequent to final approval, we plan to begin collecting fees starting July 2014.
We propose the collection of fees for three amenities at Congaree: front country camping, picnic pavilion rental, and ranger-guided canoe tours.
The park currently offers free tent camping in designated campground sites in the front country. Individual and group campsites at the Longleaf and Bluff Campgrounds have fire rings and picnic tables and access to a water spigot and restroom at the nearby Harry Hampton Visitor Center. Campers self-register and obtain a free permit at each campground. Congaree's free camping is currently undercutting local parks and businesses that offer comparable camping for a fee. The initiation of a camping fee at Congaree will facilitate improved competition with these businesses and also offer the park the opportunity to improve campground amenities to potentially include additional individual and group campsites, accessible campsites, tent pads, water spigots, lantern hangers, electric hookups and improved informational and interpretive media and signage at the campgrounds.
A single picnic pavilion with ten picnic tables is located adjacent to the visitor center parking lot. Additional picnic tables and grills nearby provide a gathering place for large groups. Use of the pavilion is currently free on a first-come first-served basis. Groups often inquire about reserving the pavilion for large family gatherings. A fee for pavilion reservations would allow Congaree the opportunity to provide a system for reserving use of the facility and improve amenities such as grills, tables, and potentially the addition of new pavilions to other areas of the park. When not reserved, the pavilion would still remain free and open to the visiting public.
Congaree currently offers a limited number of free ranger-guided canoe tours on Cedar Creek. The park provides all required equipment and visitors are led by an interpretive park ranger on a two-hour paddle trip. Local canoe outfitters operating under park-issued Commercial Use Authorizations conduct over one hundred similar tours each year in the park, for a fee. The free ranger-guided programs are in direct competition with these outfitters. Additionally, although the ranger-guided tours are very popular with park visitors, the program is not sustainable long term with our current staffing and budget levels. A fee program would provide for improved competition with local outfitters. It would also allow the park to recover the cost of operating the tours, possibly offer additional tours, and purchase safe and adequate equipment, including personal flotation devices, canoes, kayaks, paddles, and canoe trailering equipment.
We are inviting input and comment on the proposed program from public officials, visitors, gateway communities, community groups, the tourism industry and the interested public for a period of 30 days beginning September 3, 2013. Thereafter, public comments will be compiled and addressed by park staff and a fee proposal forwarded to our regional and Washington offices for review. We cannot proceed with implementation of the Recreation Fee Program until the director of the National Park Service gives his final approval.
Superintendent J. Tracy Stakely
Congaree National Park
100 National Park Road
Hopkins, SC 29061