Access advocacy group plans May 25 event to mark the end of the $10 fee
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — There aren’t too many places in the world where you can drive up to the summit of a 14,000-foot peak, but one of them is right here in Colorado, where Mt. Evans road rises to the crest of the Rocky Mountains just a short way west of Denver.
And this summer, for the first time since 1997, visitors will be able to make the drive for free, thanks to the tireless work of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, a group that has been battling the U.S. Forest Service over what it says are illegal fees for access to public lands.
At issue is a Forest Service fee program that started with little fanfare in the late 1990s and was later formally authorized by Congress in the soon-to-expire Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act.
Under the original Rec Fee Demo program, the agency was allowed to charge site-specific fees under the condition that the money stayed at the area where it was collected to make improvements to facilities. Under the second phase, Congress spelled out that the agency could only charge for areas with specific developed amenities.
The Forest Service promptly tried to stretch the definition of the law by charging general access fees for larger areas that included developed recreation sites, but has lost several legal challenges, as courts ruled that the agency is bound by the language of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, which is set to expire in 2014.
One of those challenges came at Mt. Evans, where the Forest Service charged $10 for the privilege of a trip up the mountain. Under court-ordered settlement, the Forest Service last year agreed to only charge fees at specific sites along the road, including the summit area, where there are developed facilities.
Otherwise, visitors to the area will be able to use a through-lane at the entrance station to bypass the $10 fee, paying at separate fee stations at the developed sites. There are a few other areas along the road where people can park and access the public national forest lands along the road.
Visitors can still pay a $10 fee at the base for the use of all three developed areas, and a season pass is available for $25.
This Saturday (May 25), the coalition is inviting visitors to join in a celebration marking the end of the $10 access fee. The event starts at 1 p.m. at the Echo Lake Lodge, where the group then plans to caravan to the top, meeting at the Upper Goliath trailhead for a picnic before returning to the lodge.
Mt. Evans Road, or State Highway 5, is the highest paved road in North America and the first road ever built specifically to be a scenic drive. Completed in 1930, it snakes for 15 miles through the adjacent Mt Evans Wilderness, terminating just below the 14,265-foot high summit of the mountain. Maintained and plowed by CDOT, the road is open seasonally from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Last year, the Mt. Evans recreation area,managed by the Clear Creek Ranger District of the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, saw about 162,000 visitors between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The new fee procedures will create more work and administrative costs for the Forest Service since rangers will have to collect money at the three developed sites, where some of the visitors who chose the free route probably won’t have cash to pay the required fee.
Forest Service rangers are also concerned about new resource impacts, as people potentially park in sensitive tundra areas along the road to avoid paying the fee, said Lori Benton, a recreation specialist with the agency.
Benton said that, since it is a state highway and the pullouts are maintained by CDOT, which manages the road as a scenic byway.
“They can basically pull off, it’s a state highway, they (CDOT) maintain the roads and the pull-outs, but we don’t recommend that people just go out into the tundra,” Benton said. “I’ve been on the district for 10 years and we’ve used the fees and put the resource back into the area,” she said. “I feel very proud to say we do put those fees back out there.”
Many of the developed recreation sites along Mt. Evans Road have been improved dramatically since the agency started collecting fees, as crews have worked to restore trampled tundra and create designated routes in some of the popular hiking areas.
Overall, the Forest Service is starting to do some detailed recreation surveys, including GPS tracking, to determine use patterns. Part of the study may try to determine whether some sort of public transit system for the Mt. Evans Road is a viable option, Benton said.