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Congress sets hearing on public lands ‘pay-to-play’ fees

Summit County hiking Colorado

Congress will take input on the controversial federal pay-to-play program this week.

Critics say loopholes enable federal agencies to charge illegal fees

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — The federal pay-to-play program will get a once-over in Congress this week, as a House subcommittee hears from agency officials and citizens before the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act expires next year.

At issue are how the fee program for access to public lands is being implemented by federal agencies. The hearing is set to start at 10 a.m. EDT and should be available as webcast via the House Committee on Natural Resources website.

The access fees started in the late 1990s as the so-called fee demo program, enabling federal land agencies to charge fees as long the money was used to improve the area where it was collected. Continue reading

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Lawsuit challenges Forest Service day-use fees

Colorado sites could be affected by the outcome of the court case

Fees charged at day use areas like Pine Cove, in Summit County, Colorado, are being challenged in court by public land advocates.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — After chipping away at unauthorized fees in places like Mt. Evans and backcountry trail heads, public lands activists are now challenging the Forest Service’s use of private campground operators as proxies to charge fees where they may be prohibited by federal law.

A new lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. could end the widespread practice of charging fees at day-use areas via private for-profit concessionaires who manage nearby campgrounds.

The lawsuit identifies five specific sites, including Bagby Hot Springs and Big Eddy day use sites on the Mt. Hood National Forest in Oregon, Rose Canyon Lake on the Coronado National Forest in Arizona, Second Crossing on the Tonto National Forest in Arizona, Walton Lake on the Ochoco National Forest in Oregon, and Rampart Reservoir on the Pike National Forest in Colorado.

“These recreation facilities are located on federal land and were built with taxpayer dollars. The Forest Service can’t just declare them exempt from federal law by hiring private contractors to run them. It’s a backdoor route to the privatization of our public lands and an outrageous disregard of congressional direction,” said Olivia Schmidt, program director at BARK, an Oregon group watch-dogging Mt. Hood National Forest.

Most of day-use fees charged by private concessionaires have never been subject to the public-review and approval process required by the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, according to Western Slope No-Fee Coalition president Kitty Benzar. Continue reading

Forest Service cuts pay-to-play fees at Mt. Evans

Forest Service will only charge fees at areas with developed amenities

Hikers on Mt. Evans, Colorado.

The Forest Service tries to show the public how the fee program benefits recreation management.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Just in time for the busy summer season in the mountains, the U.S. Forest Service has made some changes to the way it administers fees at the popular Mt. Evans area.

Instead of charging to visit the overall area, the agency will charge fees at three specific developed locations around Mt. Evans, including the summit area, the Mt. Goliath natural area and at Summit Lake Park, under  a revenue-sharing agreement with Denver.

The deal means hikers who just want to visit the backcountry won’t have to pay, but the Forest Service will still be able to charge for use of developed recreation amenities in the most intensely used parts of the Mt. Evans area, where fees have helped pay for some much-needed maintenance and hardening of trails. Continue reading

Colorado: Forest Service to drop fees at Cataract Lake

Day-use at Green Mountain Reservoir will once again be free after years of wrangling over a federal lands recreation fee program.

Revised plan for Green Mountain Reservoir, Cataract Lake area gets provisional OK from advisory group

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — This land is once again your land for free, at least at the popular Cataract Lake trailhead in northern Summit County, where the U.S. Forest Service has been charging a feee to park and hike since the late 1990s.

But last week, a citizen advisory committee voted to a approve a revised recreation plan for the larger Green Mountain Reservoir area, including Cataract Lake, and the new plan ends the unpopular Cataract Lake parking and hiking fee, as well as day use fees at Green Mountain Reservoir. The new plan also reconfigures camping fees to a basic per-site charge, with extra fees for extra cars.

A couple of caveats: The vote by the Colorado Recreation Resource Advisory Committee apparently was incomplete, with a few members missing, so it’s not altogether clear if the vote will stick, Arapahoe-Roosevelt National Forest Supervisor Rick Cooksey, the designated federal official on the recreation advisory panel. Cooksey said he will speak with the members who were absent from the meeting to try and get their approval for the Green Mountain-area plan. Continue reading

Forest Service recreation fees take another legal hit

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rules that the agency can’t charge people for roadside picnics, or parking and hiking in undeveloped areas

A federal court of appeals ruling makes clear that the Forest Service can't charge fees simply for parking at a trailhead and hiking.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — The U.S. Forest Service can’t charge recreation fees for simple access to public lands, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously last week, rejecting the agency’s bid to include undeveloped areas in the fee program.

The San Francisco-based Appeals Court found the U.S. Forest Service at fault for charging parking fees to people who go for a hike without using amenities such as picnic tables, trashcans and bathrooms located nearby, or who camp in dispersed, undeveloped parts of a National Forest.

If the ruling stands, it will be binding in nine western states and sets a nationwide legal precedent. The ruling doesn’t cover Colorado, but the fee program at Mt. Evans is currently being challenged in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals — which does cover Colorado, and the recent ruling out of San Francisco could be a factor in that case. Continue reading

Judge limits Forest Service ‘pay-to-play’ program

The Forest Service will have to change the signage at numerous fee sites around the country following a recent federal court ruling on the pay-to-play program. PHOTO COURTESY WESTERN SLOPE NO-FEE COALITION.

No more fees for access to undeveloped backcountry areas

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — 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. Continue reading

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