By next year or even sooner, you may get to park fee-free at some of your favorite trailheads on national forest land in Western states.
Changes are coming to the U.S. Forest Service's recreation fee program, though not until later this year or maybe 2013, USFS officials say, after public-comment periods. The most noteworthy change on the horizon: Vehicles parked at national forest trailheads that lack certain visitor amenities (restrooms, for example) will no longer be required to pay a fee or display a recreational pass.
Does this mean regional recreation permits (Southern California's Adventure Pass, for example, or the Northwest Forest Pass that covers Oregon and Washington) will cease to exist? No, USFS representatives tell us. They will remain in effect, but will be required in fewer areas.
Lots of details, emotions and subplots are involved in this story, even litigation (noted later in this post). But here is the big-picture issue that probably matters most to people who visit national forest land for recreation:
In order to impose what the Forest Service calls a Standard Amenity Fee, or SAF—something the public thinks of as a parking fee—a national forest area must offer all of the following:
• Designated, developed parking.
• A permanent toilet facility.
• A permanent trash receptacle.
• Interpretive materials (a sign, exhibit, or kiosk).
• Picnic tables.
• Security services (meaning the area could be patrolled by USFS or local law-enforcement personnel).
Some fee exceptions will exist. Shooting ranges or off-highway vehicle trail systems will still require SRPs (Special Recreation Permits). Campgrounds and boat launches will continue to impose EAFs (Expanded Amenity Fees).
But for mainstream visitors, the coming changes essentially mean no amenities, no fees—no SAF. Even if those 6 amenities are provided near the place you park, USFS officials tell us no fee will be required. So when on Forest Service land, if you customarily park on a wide spot on a remote dirt road, in the future your vehicle will not need to display a permit.
That's good news for trailhead visitors annoyed by the fees—typically $5 a day or a $30 annual pass. It's potentially bad news for the cash-strapped Forest Service, which on average has collected an estimated $60 million annually from the fees, used for tasks ranging from ranger staffing and facility maintenance to trail clearing. Today a Los Angeles Times editorial lamented the loss of revenue the changes will likely cause.
With USFS input, here's a brief timeline of recreation fees charged on national forest land:
• 1965: The Land and Water Conservation Act authorizes the USFS to collect fees for highly developed areas such as campgrounds, visitor center and developed boat ramps. All fees went to the U.S. Treasury other than a small percentage to cover collection costs,
• 1996: Congress enacts the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program. A minimum of 80% (and up to 95%) of fees could be retained by the site collecting the fees to fund improvements to facilities and services.
• 2004: Congress approves the Recreation Enhancement Act (REA), authorizing fee collection for 10 years and further defining where fees could be charged. A multiagency pass program (the America the Beautiful Pass) was created, as were regional passes such as the Adventure Pass and Northwest Forest Pass.
• 2005+: Much public outcry surfaces regarding the fees, most notably a lawsuit filed in 2008 by 4 hikers exploring Mount Lemmon within the Coronado National Forest near Tucson, Ariz. Their argument: Since they used no amenities, they should not have to pay an amenity fee. The USFS emphasizes its fee is not a parking fee.
• 2010: The USFS initiates a national review of Standard Amenity Fee.
• 2012: A Feb. 9 decision by the San Francisco-based U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rules in favor of the Arizona hikers, saying the fees cannot be charged for recreation on undeveloped Forest Service Land. Separately, the USFS concludes its SAF review and proposes changes to how it administers fees.
Jim Bedwell, Director of Recreation, Heritage, and Volunteer Resources for the Forest Service at its Washington, D.C., office, discussed the proposed changes with The REI Blog. Here are answers to a few key questions:
Q: How many areas are affected by the proposed changes?
A: There are 122 national forest and grassland units nationwide. Not all will have proposed area changes.
REI note: It is believed most changes will first occur in nine westernmost states within the jurisdiction of the 9th Circuit Court: Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii.
Q: When is the earliest changes could be approved?
A: After a public comment period at an affected national forest, along with recommendations by applicable Resource Advisory Committees (internal USFS groups). A Regional Forester then makes the final approval. This usually requires a few months and will likely take place throughout the spring, summer and fall of 2012.
Q: How can I know if a particular trailhead will be fee-free in the future?
A: Details of proposed changes are not yet public, but they will be when public comment periods are announced. To know this, monitor the websites of forest districts important to you.
REI note: Forest Service websites sometimes provide a list of sites where day-use fees are required. The USFS's Pacific Northwest's region offers one.
Bedwell says the USFS understands fees can be a touchy topic.
"As the scope of the fee demo program expanded away from highly developed area to larger, less-developed areas, it became controversial over time," Bedwell said. "We want the public to be able to camp and enjoy picnics and play outdoors. We just ask them to realize that there are a lot of costs incurred to pick up trash, reduce erosion and address sanitary concerns.
"Fees are one way that we provide the best recreation opportunities that we can," he said. "Appropriations from Congress, volunteers and nonprofit partners, and private sector service providers are also important means to providing access and caring for these incredible lands we manage for the American people."
Photos by T.D. Wood.