NATIONAL LAKES RECREATION STUDY

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Recreational boating is just too popular in some parts of the country:

The Arizona boating season stretches from January to December. And on some weekends, the line at the launching ramps in the Lake Mojave National Recreation Area can stretch for a mile or more. On a holiday weekend like Memorial flay, boaters often wait two to three hours to launch their boats, and getting off the lake can be a nightmare in slow motion.

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir in North Carolina near the rapidly-growing Raleigh-Durham metropolitan area has over a dozen launching ramps. Most are operated by a state agency which charges a fee, sets hours and controls access. One ramp, maintained by the Corps, is free and open at all times. As a result, that ramp is heavily over-used, creating a headache for the agency, which is already short on funds for management and enforcement.

Eighty miles north of Boise, ID, the 28,OOO acre Cascade Reservoir offers outstanding opportunity for all types of boating. Although built in the 1940's for irrigation purposes, this Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) lake is now so popular for boating and fishing that overcrowding becomes a real problem on holiday weekends.

Yet, only 40 miles west of Boise, just over the Oregon line, BOR's Owyhee Reservoir is a virtually untapped boating treasure. Not even a sign on 1-84 marks the turnoff for this pristine lake that wanders for 50 miles through a deep canyon amid striking geological formations.

The federal government owns or manages over 2,000 lakes and reservoirs nationwide representing a vast recreation resource that many feel is underutilized. These range from man-made impoundments built for irrigation to large reservoirs built for power generation and flood control.

Many such bodies of water are open to boating, fishing and other watersports but lack public access points or other facilities, limiting their use even though demand for water-sports in the area may be high.

A bill just passed by Congress and a federal demonstration project now in the start-up stages could go a long way toward solving some of these problems by providing more and better boating opportunities for inland boaters in the years ahead.

Plans to create a system of federally designated recreation lakes have been gathering momentum in the nation's capital for the past several years. Such a system could include up to 200 federally owned lakes and would encourage private businesses to develop marinas, launching ramps, courtesy docks, rental concessions and other facilities for boaters.

Last June, Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-AK) introduced the National Recreation Lakes Study Act. The bill would create a commission to study the potential for such a system and to make recommendations on how it would work. The commission would have one year to conduct its study and would identity incentives that could draw the necessary private investment dollars to public lands, not only for boating facilities but for related recreation attractions, like swimming beaches, fishing areas and campgrounds that also could serve boaters.

In the meantime, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been developing its own plan to improve recreation opportunities through private investment on some of the 460 lakes and water bodies the agency owns. A pilot program involving seven Corps lakes in four states is in the start-up stages but already it has attracted the interest of 40 private development firms.

NATIONAL LAKES INITIATIVE

"The federal government has millions of acres of lakes serving the nation in many ways, said American Recreation Coalition President Derrick Crandall. Part of the problem, Crandall said, is that the federal agencies that manage these lakes operate under mandates handed down by Congress decades ago when recreation was barely considered, if at all.

Crandall added that the problem at federal lakes is compounded by budget woes. At a time when the federal government is cutting back, he said, it is difficult for the agencies to make capital improvements that recreation facilities like campgrounds, marinas and launching ramps requite. And it's even harder to come up with continuing sources of money to maintain such facilities.

One of the primary goals of a national recreation lakes program would be to encourage businesses to take over the financial strain by investing private capital to build and operate facilities under long-term agreements with the agencies.

Crandall and other advocates for the program point to the ski industry's 30-year record of success with private investment on public land. Concessionaires operating on national forest lands under lease agreements with the U.S. Forest Service today provide over half the downhill skiing opportunities in America.

The mechanics of a national lakes program would be addressed during the one-year study proposed by Murkowski. His national recreation lakes bill would create a commission made up of federal officials, recreation industry representatives and user groups with the specific charge to determine the status and potential for recreation on the federal lakes. It would also recommend innovative ways to meet public demand.

ARMY CORPS PROJECT

The Corps of Engineers, however, has already built up a head of steam. Its Recreation Partnership Initiative is a pilot project on seven Corps lakes aimed at the same general goal: to provide more public recreation at little or no cost to the taxpayer through private investment and public-private partnerships.

The Corps controls over seven million surface acres of water in 42 states, making it the single largest provider of water-based recreation in the nation. Even more significant, most Corps lakes are located east of the Rocky Mountains where 79% of the U.S. population lives. The majority are within 50 miles of a major metropolitan area.

The Corps conducted preliminary market studies last year to identity which of its lakes have the best potefr tial to attract private investment for recreation facilities. Development could go beyond traditional watersports and may include facilities like golf courses, hotels and convention centers

Of the seven lakes identified, three in Pennsylvania, two in Texas and one each in Montana and Kansas, six are expected to include expanded boating facilities.

"We've done a preliminary market analysis at each of these lakes," said Corps project manager, George Tabb. "Our studies show that there is not only a demonstrated public need for added boating facilities, but that each lake has the capacity to support expansion. The studies also show that boating facilities development would be economically viable for private investors."

Part of the appeal for such projects is the overall economic development potential boating offers. According to Corps studies, boating represents the second most popular activity at its recreation sites.

Boating is projected to increase some 24% by the turn of the century and the most dramatic growth is expected in small, trailerable boats under 26 feet. Thus these efforts to open more and better facilities on federal lakes couldn't come at a better time.

-By Ryck Lydecker

BOAT U.S. Magazine November 1996