Court-ordered settlement ends hiking and parking fees at Mt. Lemmon Recreation Area in Arizona
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Hikers in Arizona will get a break from pesky Forest Service recreation fees this summer, as a federal judge last week approved a settlement that ensures free access to the trails and backcountry of the Mt. Lemmon Recreation Area, near Tuscon.
The court-ordered deal concludes yet another legal battle over public land fees, but the war is not yet over. In another lawsuit against the Forest Service, fee opponents are challenging the now widespread practice of allowing private, for-profit concession-holders to charge fees for day-use areas and other public land sites across the country.
At Mt. Lemmon, the Forest Service had been charging a general-access fee for what it called a high-impact recreation area. That didn’t sit well with some local hikers, who, with the backing of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, challenged the agency in court — and won, leading to the settlement.
“Instead of being required to buy a pass to park anywhere within an 18,432-acre area encompassing a whole highway corridor and numerous trailheads and dispersed camping areas, fees will now be required only for use of ten developed picnic sites and a visitor/interpretive center,” Western Slope No-Fee Coalition president Kitty Benzar said via email.
“The reduction in the size of the Mount Lemmon Recreation Area will enable recreational use free of charge in more than 99 percent of the original fee area,” U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins wrote in his order.
Th judge also ordered the Forest Service to make sure that the boundaries of the fees sites are clearly marked, and specified that his order doesn’t affect the collection of fees by concession-holders, or the collection of “expanded amenity” recreation fees.
Benzar said that, when a trailhead is within or close to one of the developed fee sites, the Forest Service will designate free parking areas for trail users.
So far, the Forest Service is only making these changes at Mt. Lemmon. But the agency is also being sued over a similar Adventure Pass in Southern California, and could face additional lawsuits unless it stops charging general-access and parking fees, including areas like the Arapaho National Recreation Area and the Maroon Bells area, both in Colorado.
In the Mt. Lemmon case, the agency’s insistence on fighting in court also ended up costing U.S. taxpayers some money, as the Forest Service will pay $100,000 to the plaintiffs to cover attorney’s fees and other costs related to the lawsuit.
At issue is the agency’s interpretation of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, which authorized public land managers to charge recreation fees — but only within narrow parameters, for specific sites with developed amenities.
The Forest Service promptly tried to expand the definition of the law by artificially creating designated recreation areas that encompassed developed facilities, but has been slapped down by the courts several times, including at Mt. Evans, in Colorado.
Fee critics say the law prohibits agencies from charging people to simply park and hike on public lands. The various court cases are manifestations of a philosophical battle that started in the 1990s, when federal land managers first cooked up what was then called the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program.
The general idea was that the bulk of the money would stay at the site where it’s collected to make needed improvements. But audits found that, at some sites, the cost to collect and administer the fees exceeded the revenues.
Opponents said the fees represented a creeping privatization of public lands and form of double taxation. The Western Slope No-Fee Coalition lobbied Congress and rallied opposition to the fees, helping to shape the current version of the law.
Internally, the Forest Service has also launched a review of the way it applies the law, trying to determine at which sites fees are appropriate and legal. But land managers are apparently having a hard time weaning themselves from the revenue, as they continue to stretch to definition of what Congress intended.