Court says private concession companies don’t have to meet agency standards for recreation fees on public lands
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — One of the legal efforts to try and check the recent proliferation of public land access fees was rebuffed by a federal court in Washington, D.C. last week. U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras ruled that private companies running recreation facilities on federal lands don’t have to follow the same regulations as agency managed facilities.
In a worst-case scenario, the ruling could open the door to more widespread fees for trailhead parking and other types of access that have traditionally been free, said Kitty Benzar, president of the West Slope No-Fee Coalition, a group dedicated to eliminating fees charged for access and recreation on undeveloped public lands.
“I hope this is outrageous enough that people will get mad. Congress is working on legislation now, but they might as well not bother unless it includes meaningful limits on concessionaires,” Benzar said via email.
The recreation-fee issue goes back to the 1990s, when the Forest Service and other federal agencies started what was then the controversial rec fee demo program. Under the program, the Forest Service was able to keep most of the fees rather than seeing the money go to the federal treasury. Ostensibly, the money was intended to improve the sites at which is was collected.
The federal agencies have always had authority to charge fees at developed site, so the idea of letting them keep the money to maintain and improve recreation sites was popular in the “reinventing government” era. But the program also resulted in new fees, sometimes simply for parking at a trailhead and going for a hike.
The fee program was subsequently made permanent under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, which required fee sites to have a certain amount of developed facilities, but the Forest Service immediately started trying to skirt the rules, leading to the ongoing skirmishes between access advocates — primarily the West Slope No-Fee Coalition — and the agency.
In one recent court case the nonprofit won a significant victory in Colorado, when a federal judge ruled that the Forest Service can’t charge people just to drive along Mt. Evans Road, a state highway. Fees can only be charged to people who stop to use the developed sites along the route.
Last week’s ruling means the private for-profit companies that operate campgrounds and other recreation sites get a free pass to charge fees for areas that would otherwise be exempt under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, and that could lead to more privatization of recreational activities, according to Benzar.
“There will be no such thing as Forest Service recreation, only private parks on public lands,” Benzar said via email.
The Forest Service has already turned more half of all its campgrounds, including more than 80 percent of the most highly-developed ones, to private operation. Private concessionaires typically charge much higher rates for camping than agency-managed campgrounds.
According to Benzar, the Forest Service could turn over picnic areas, trailheads, scenic roads and overlooks to private companies to operate for profit. The ruling could also make it easier for private campground operators to disregard various types of access passes for public lands.
Congress will have to reauthorize the fee law in the next couple years, as the current version sunsets in December 2015. A House subcommittee has drafted a new version of the bill with a first hearing set for April 4. The draft bill, as well as a link to a live stream of the hearing, is at the House Natural Resources Committee website.