Stores balk at paying up-front to sell forest permits

Daily News Staff Writer

The U.S. Forest Service requires vehicle passes at access sites in the Manistee National Forest. However, a change in the way the Forest Service sells the permits to vendors may make it difficult for residents and users to find the permits, especially the annual permits.

Under the old system, vendors received the annual passes, the Forest Service recorded the number of passes a vendor received, and the vendor payed for passes after the sales.

But under the new system, vendors have to pay for the passes up front.

Recreational Program Manager Carol Boll at the Forest Service Cadillac office said the new system was a switch to "normal business practices."

"If you buy from Coca-Cola, you’re going to pay up-front," Boll said. "The public won’t see the change. The daily, weekly and yearly passes will be available from vendors across the state."

"Some people liked this system better because it was less paperwork for them."

Boll said the vendors have to pay 90 percent of the cost of the passes up front and make 10 percent for "selling them to taxpayers."

But rather than pay a large sum of money all at once — before selling the permits — many vendors are choosing to stop selling the permits altogether.

“Why should we take $2,000 of our money to make the Forest Service money, have them sit on it, and get very little for selling them?” said Jay Frank of Baldwin Bait and Tackle. “We’d much rather put that money into our inventory.”

Frank said the up-front costs for the store prevented them from signing onto the new system.

"I’m not saying we’re not going to sell them,” Frank said. “We might get a few at a time, but we’re going to run out constantly. It’s very inconvenient.”

None of the four vendors in Mason County are sure they want to continue selling the permits.

Jeff Betz, owner of Trailhead Bike and Kayak, said the changes come at an unfortunate time because people were just beginning to accept the fee program.

“It was finally set up to be as convenient as it was going to get,” Betz said. “It’s a screwy thing, and it’s too bad. They just got people convinced in the program and willing to buy passes. Now they made it inconvenient for us to sell them and for the people to buy them.”

Betz said he was likely not going to continue selling the passes at his store.

Theresa Negele of Branch Grocery said her store was not going to carry the passes either.

“We’re trying to do them a service,” Negele said. “They said there was no accountability. We had to sign for every permit. What do you mean there was no accountability?”

Vaughn Flewelling from Hamlin Grocery said his store also was not going to sell the permits.

Rick Tarnowski, owner of Forest Trail Service Center, said he was unsure whether he was going to sell the permits.

“They want us to buy up-front and eat it if we don’t sell them,” Tarnowski said. “Last year, we sold $8,000 to $9,000 worth of permits for the federal government. This is ridiculous.”

District Forest Ranger Les Russell said ideally, the permits would be available throughout the area, but most vendors — all but one, according to Russell — have said they do not want to continue selling the annual permits. Russell said there was very little likelihood the system would be reconsidered.

“We need willing vendors (to make the permits) easily accessible,” Russell said.

Russell said the change to up-front purchasing was recommended by an auditor and was “an accounting issue” dealing with “accountable property.”

“It was more our problem than (the vendors’),” Russell said.

But he acknowledged the issues the new system could pose for small-time vendors.

“Most of these vendors work on a small margin and they’re not necessarily certain they’re going to get their money back,” Russell said. “I can understand that.”

Frank said he heard the system was changed because some of the vendors never paid for the permits they sold.

“In my understanding of the situation, a few vendors never paid them the money, and they changed the whole thing for a few bad eggs,” Frank said.

“The old system was fine. They want to punish us for what a few vendors did.”

Frank said he’s had to send customers who asked for the permits to the Forest Service field office in downtown Baldwin, an office that’s only open during the week this time of year.

The office’s limited hours of operation are what Frank expects to be a real hassle for the fishermen and other users who would normally buy the annual pass.

“It’s horrible for the fishermen,” Frank said. “They’re not going to have a place to buy (an annual permit) on the weekend until May 15 when the Forest Service starts to require float permits. Evidently, it’s not worth their time to sit and sell passes on weekends.

“That’s going to result in one of two things: either they’re going to write a lot of tickets, or they’re going to make more money from people buying dailies every time who would normally buy the annuals.”

Currently, the 2006 annual vehicle passes at a cost of $20 are available at the Forest Service field offices in Baldwin and Manistee. A household pass for $30 includes two annual passes and is only available at the field office.

Those wanting an annual permit can send a check or money order to a Forest Service Field Office and receive one in the mail.

Another option includes a $5 weekly pass. The $3 daily passes also are available at the pay tubes at the access sites. The Forest Service accepts Golden Age and Golden Access passes in lieu of a vehicle pass at the access sites.

Boll said the daily permits are good from site to site, but users must ensure the pass is displayed.

Parking without a permit is a misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $5,000 and six months in jail, but the standard set fine is $75. Boll said the fines were in the process of being reviewed and could change.

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