The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's timing could not be worse.

The agency is proposing to raise camping fees and initiate new day-use and boat-launch charges at New Melones Reservoir just as gas prices are climbing to record levels and economists are predicting recession.

The Bureau says it is raising rates to cover steadily increasing maintenance and overhead costs.

It also points out that a 2005 law allows that at least 80 percent of the new fee revenues will to go directly to Melones rather than back to the U.S. Treasury. Still, the move is ill-advised.

Under the proposal, fees for standard campsites would rise $2 a night to $18 and walk-in sites would go from $12 to $14 in April. In October, an $8 boat-launch fee and a $6 day-use charge would begin.

With gas prices expected to rise even more this summer, many Californians will look for recreational opportunities closer to home. In increasing rates now, the federal government is saying it doesn't care.

The Bureau of Reclamation should put its hikes on hold until the now-bleak economy shows signs of recovery. Otherwise higher prices could deprive boaters, anglers, water skiers and campers of an affordable option they have enjoyed for years. Not only that, but higher fees could actually lower New Melones visitation, now at 800,000 visitors a year.

If this sounds more than vaguely familiar, it should: Last spring Yosemite National Park proposed hiking its per-car gate fee from $20 to $25. With gas even a year ago hovering in the $3.25-per-gallon range, the proposal spurred a barrage of protest much of it from residents and businesses in neighboring counties.

Park Superintendent Mike Tollefson got the message: He waived the proposed hike until at least January of 2009.

The Bureau should follow suit and put its own fees on the back burner for at least a year.

The agency should be particularly cautious about instituting the Phase 2 fees: April's camping permit increases are estimated to raise annual New Melones revenues by nearly $20,000 to about $290,000 a modest 7.3 percent. But the October fees which will be subject to their own 60-day comment period beginning April 7 would generate more than $718,000 in new revenue and hike gross income by 265 percent.

Of that total, said Chief New Melones Ranger Jeff Laird, $150,000 would be paid to a half dozen gate attendants who will collect the fees at Glory Hole and Tuttletown recreation areas. The remainder would be spent on improving facilities, increased law enforcement, backlogged maintenance and habitat improvement.

Raising some rates at New Melones Reservoir, indeed, makes sense.

Private campgrounds and RV parks charge far more than the reservoir's Glory Hole and Tuttletown recreation areas.

Overnight rates at private parks in the foothills, particularly during the summer season, can top $40 more than twice the $18 fee now proposed for Melones. Although many private parks offer more amenities than reservoir campgrounds, there should be more parity.

Also, launch and day-use fees ($7 and $8 respectively) are charged by marinas and recreation areas on the shores of Don Pedro, a comparable Tuolumne County reservoir operated by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts. At Lake Tulloch, a smaller reservoir operated below New Melones by the Tri-Dam Project, private marinas charge $10 launch fees.

User fees, indeed, are a fair and effective way to cover costs. In better economic times, rate hikes and new charges at Melones might well be justified.

But those times are not here yet, and the Bureau of Reclamation should listen to the reservoir's users and neighbors (the comment period for Phase 1 fees ends on March 17) and hold back on the new fees for now.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Ron Horton; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.