FALMOUTH — Visitors to Mackworth Island may have to get in the habit of having cash on hand.

The honor system used to collect fees at the state park is mostly ignored and soon could be replaced by on-site staff from the Bureau of Parks and Lands.

It’s the second time in five years the state has proposed putting someone on the island to collect fees, an idea that has proven to be unpopular with many visitors who appreciate the “free” park.

Until last summer, The Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which shares the small island with the popular state park, had a security guard at the island gate. The guard didn’t collect fees – there’s a pay station for that – but the employee did make sure visitors to the park didn’t overflow the parking area and block the entrance to the school.

The position was cut because of budget constraints and security upgrades to the school, said David Sherry, its executive director. But the concern about parking remains.

“My interest is making sure that visitors to the state park don’t unknowingly cause any problems for the school,” Sherry said.

MANAGE PARKING, TRAFFIC

The Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is proposing to staff the park during peak visitor months and collect admission to cover the cost.

The department’s proposed budget includes two 20-week positions, at a combined cost of $38,500, as well as estimated revenue of $55,000 from the enhanced fee-collection, spokesman John Bott said.

The primary purpose of the staff would be to manage parking and traffic flow, and be a “point of contact” for people using the park, which is popular with runners, dog-walkers and schoolchildren.

The 100-acre island off Falmouth is connected to the mainland by a long, narrow bridge that starts near the mouth of the Presumpscot River, which separates the town from Portland.

A 11/4-mile trail runs along the edge of the island, just before it drops off into Casco Bay. Strips of sand and a pebble beach are accessible from the trail, which has views of the water, the city and islands farther out to sea. To the inside of the trail is a forest, mostly bare this time of year, aside from the grove of evergreens that’s home to the “fairy village,” where collections of sticks, rocks, pine cones and mussel shells – assembled by anonymous small hands – lean at the bases of trees and on top of stumps. Nearby, in a pet cemetery, a circular stone wall surrounds the graves of 14 Irish setters and a horse owned by former Gov. Percival Baxter, who deeded the island – where he had a summer home – to the state in 1946.

SMALL MINORITY PAYING

Visitors are supposed to pay the entrance fee at the beginning of the trail, just beyond the unpaved parking lot with space for a couple dozen cars. Next to a sign with the fee schedule is a green metal pole with an arrow pointing to a slot above the words, “Pay fee.” Visitors who bypass the trail and cut through the field beside it could easily miss the pay station.

For visitors from 12 to 64 years old, the fee is $2 for residents and $3 for nonresidents. Children 5 to 11 years old and nonresident seniors pay $1. Maine seniors and children under 5 get in for free. The fees don’t apply to people who have annual state park passes.

Simple math makes it clear that a small minority of people have been paying.

The pay station, which is known in the park system as an “iron ranger,” collected $9,756 in fees last year, Bott said. However, an estimated 61,885 people visited the park in 2014, meaning the revenue should have been closer to $100,000.

Bott said it’s typical for iron rangers to receive about 10 percent of the fees that would be collected at a staffed gate.

Even state parks that have full-time staff use the honor-system receptacles to collect fees after hours. Other parks that rely solely on iron rangers include Kettle Cove in Cape Elizabeth, Vaughn Woods in South Berwick and Grafton Notch in Newry.

The cans at Mackworth Island and Kettle Cove were installed in 2010 as a compromise brought forward by then-Gov. John Baldacci.

Baldacci’s administration proposed placing a staff member at the gates to collect fees, a move that was criticized by some users of the park. Saying he was worried that a fee collector would deter people from outdoor activity, the governor personally scuttled the plan and the state instead put the iron rangers in place.

‘SUCH A SPECIAL PLACE’

Stuart Eisenberg of Cape Elizabeth frequents both Kettle Cove and Mackworth Island. He has a state park pass, but said he occasionally slips money into the slot anyway.

“I would have no objection to enforcing the fee,” he said, walking his dog on the island trail Wednesday.

Aja Stephan seemed disheartened to hear about the proposed fee as she watched over a dozen kindergarteners from the Friends School of Portland playing on the shore.

The Quaker school has been located on the island in rented space since its inception nine years ago. Next year, it’s moving to Cumberland, but plans to use the island for educational programs, Stephan said. That might not be possible if a fee is required.

“I understand the safety part, but I think it’s such a special place,” she said. “It would be great to keep it free.”