Thursday, November 3, 2011

About those rumors on park fee hikes for kayakers

Rumors have been swirling among Sacramento area kayakers about new state park fees and permit requirements for paddling clubs – specifically at Folsom Lake State Recreation Area (SRA), which includes Lake Natoma. In recent weeks, there has been a rapid-fire exchange of email comments and messages among paddlers, all voicing outrage at the prospect of increased fees or other requirements.

Some club leaders even expressed suspicion that park rangers might surf the Web, searching for kayak club events to detect violators and net more park revenues.

Rumors cast a shadow over kayaking clubs that use Lake Natoma, in the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area 

Pretty strong stuff. So NorCal Yak went to Rich Preston, acting superintendent of Folsom Lake SRA, for a reality check. Preston was asked if new rules were in the works, if kayaker clubs would be required to apply for special permits, if fee hikes were in the works for these clubs, and related questions.

Most kayaker concerns misplaced

Preston’s responses indicate that most kayaker concerns seem misplaced and appear to be the result of misunderstanding. There is one potential scenario that could cost any private group – not just kayakers -- hundreds or thousands of dollars to use the recreation area. But that appears very unlikely for social paddling clubs that launch on Lake Natoma. Plus, there are much larger issues at stake.

First, California state parks are in trouble, as documented by NorCal YakSecond, at a time when parks are severely underfunded, public demand remains high – to the tune of 65 million visits annually. Third, given intensive use, parks must balance the needs of the general public with special groups, including kayak clubs.

And fourth, while Folsom and Natoma may be the immediate focus – Preston said he wasn’t aware of similar concerns elsewhere in the state system – all parks share the same general rules and guidelines. So kayak clubs in other parts of the state should take note.

Kayakers have strongly strongly supported state parks in funding crisis 
Preston emphasized that no “new rules” are contemplated, but Folsom SRA is reviewing special events, concessions, and fee collection in light of existing state regulations. So how does that affect “Meetup” paddler groups and other kayak clubs that plan regular outings at Lake Natoma?

“We are not nor have we ever considered the casual “meetup” groups…or online social groups that meet at the park for any recreational activity as subject to these regulations,” said Preston in an email to NorCal Yak.

Objective is to manage larger, formally organized events

“Our key objective is evaluating the need to manage larger, formally organized, regularly occurring events coordinated by groups, clubs, and teams, who use the park for workouts, and activities that have potential to impact or displace general park users, place additional burdens on park resources or staff, and have an expectation for accommodations beyond those available to general park visitors,” he said.

“Our primary interest is in protecting the experience of general park visitors, which I believe is the category most of those who are expressing a concern will fall into.”

Commercial firms already pay concession fees to conduct sunset paddles
As it stands now, Folsom SRA issues commercial permits for businesses such as California Canoe & Kayak, which organizes paddling dates and offers kayaking lessons on Lake Natoma. Such commercial firms pay a percentage of their gross receipts to the park. Then there are special use permits, said Preston, citing the example of a formal rowing club that regularly meets and trains at Natoma, uses motorized coaching boats and asks to exceed the speed limit. Which brings us back to the clubs.

“Where those smaller groups may need a permit is when they are charging a fee to participate for a specific activity in the park (such as a race), want special access or privilege to areas that the general public does not have (moonlight paddles after park hours), or they are providing some type of formal instruction or program,” Preston said.

Rumors seem to match up with summer event  

That seems to match up with an incident that occurred last summer, according to paddlers, when a park ranger approached a person who was giving informal lessons to some kayak clubbers. While the “instructor” was a recognized professional who sometimes works for California Canoe & Kayak, he was not working for CCK on that particular day, nor was he collecting a fee.  

Preston emphasized that the park review of “special use” permit situations was not motivated by a drive for more fees, or to deflect injury liability lawsuits against the park. Special use permits also require proof of insurance.

“The primary concern is to manage activities that consume park resources to the detriment and or displacement of general park users, request special access or privileges not granted to general park visitors, and have some increased burden to park staff or resources,” said Preston. “Liability is one consideration but not a primary concern.”

Liability insurance costs could be prohibitive

Not for the park, but definitely for any private group that applies for special use permits. NorCal Yak talked to a commercial insurance agent who said such liability policy premiums would start at $500 and could easily run into the thousands, depending on the nature of the event and number of participants. (Preston suggested that kayak clubs planning a special event might inquire about lower-cost policies through professional organizations such as the American Canoe Association.)

Regardless of insurance policy costs, kayak clubs might want to become better educated about regulations that govern special event permits and concession fees at Folsom SRA, Preston added. However, he could not say how the park would enforce such rules, given enforcement cutbacks.

But it appears that we won’t see rangers lurking behind the bushes around Folsom SRA, or posing as kayak clubbers to monitor social Web sites. As Preston put it: “Many club activities do not fit within the criteria of a special event or concession. For those that do, until they pose an issue or are otherwise brought to our attention, we do not have the resources to expend a tremendous amount of time or energy hunting them down.”


Laura Dennis is Folsom SRA’s contact for special event permits. Holly Welch handles concession contracts. Both can be reached at (916) 988-0205.

State park district superintendents hold authority to issue special event permits: [Title 14 California Code of Regulation, Section 4301(j)], issue  concession contracts (Public Resources Code 5080.03) and charge fees (Public Resource Code 5010).

Section 4301(j) of the California Code of Regulations states: “Special event permits are required when fees are charged by the event sponsor beyond regular State Park Facility Use Fees, when the Department has determined the event will create a greater potential hazard or liability to the State than incurred through typical operations, when the activity includes the exclusive use of an area within the park, when the activity interferes significantly with the public’s use of an area, when additional staffing or staff time is required, or where items or services are sold. Special event permits are required for any activity within the State Park System and which meet any of these criteria, and which occur wholly or partially within or on any property owned, operated, or administered by the Department.”