SUMMIT COUNTY — Even though a federal judge slapped the Forest Service on the wrist for its fee program in the Red Rock Country around Sedona, Arizona, the agency said earlier this month it will continue to manage the roads and trails as a fee area.
At issue in the case was whether or not the agency was charging for access to undeveloped areas in violation of the law that authorizes fees only for areas with specific facilities. Sedona resident Jim Smith fought a ticket he received for parking without paying the fee at the Vultee Arch Trailhead — several miles from the nearest toilets and trash cans.
A federal judge in Arizona has put some limits on the U.S. Forest Service pay-to-play program by ruling that agency violated the law by charging an access fee for an undeveloped backcountry area. The case focused on a ticket issued to Sedona resident Jim Smith, who parked overnight at the Vultee Arch Trailhead, a dirt parking lot with no amenities accessed by a rough dirt road. He backpacked into the Coconino National Forest, camped in an area with no amenities, and returned to find a ticket on his car because it did not display a Red Rock Pass.
Smith challenged the agency’s authority to levy a fee at Vultee Arch Trailhead because the law authorizing recreation fees specifically prohibits fees for parking and general access. Fees are only allowed where there is reasonable access to permanent toilets, trash containers, picnic tables, developed parking, interpretive signage, and security services.
The Vultee Arch Trailhead offers none of these amenities — the nearest toilet is seven miles away and the nearest trash can is 10 miles away.
Here’s what the judge had to say:
“In addition to the plain language of the statute prohibiting the Forest Service from charging for parking or access or undeveloped camping, and the plain language of the statute prohibiting the Forest Service from charging an amenity fee at a site where specific amenities were not provided, Congressional intent and legislative history indicate that the Forest Service’s construction of the relevant statutory section would thwart Congressional intent and result in an absurd construction of the relevant statutory scheme.”
Here’s how the Forest Service responded in a press release:
“A recent court decision has challenged how the Forest Service manages the Fee Area. The Forest Service acknowledges the recent court decision and is reviewing the area to determine appropriate changes in light of the court’s decision. Any proposed changes will be submitted to the appropriate Recreation Resource Advisory Committee, in accordance with the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act. The area continues to be managed as a Recreation Fee Area.”
So instead of writing tickets, the Forest Service in some cases is using a “Notice of Required Fee,” which some critics of the fee program see as an attempt to intimidate the public into paying fees, “Without the burden of having to prove in court that the fee is authorized or that the accused is guilty of not paying it,” according to the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition.
Read more on the latest twists in the recreation fee saga at New West, where Bill Schneider has been covering the issue intensively for many years.
Meanwhile, in Colorado, the Forest Service wants to divert revenue from the fee program to an unrelated land deal.
The no-fee group claims the deal would set a dangerous precedent for spending the recreation fee revenues outside the area where they were collected, while the law requires that the bulk of fees must go back into improving the area where they are collected.
Get more information at the group’s website.
Filed under: Environment, Summit County Colorado Tagged: | Coconino National Forest, forest service recreation fees, Red Rock Pass, Summit County Colorado, Summit County News, United States Forest Service