Does the U.S. Forest Service need to relearn basic math? In 1996, Congress allowed the agency to charge recreation fees at no more than 100 sites nationally (HCN, 2/14/00: Land of the fee). Now, it turns out the agency forced visitors to pay at 1,349 trailheads, picnic areas and other sites in the Northwest region alone. U.S. Judge Thomas Coffin ruled that the agency broke the law, but the decision will likely prove a hollow victory for foes of the federal Recreation Fee Demonstration Program. In November, Congress lifted the 100-site cap and Coffin's decision is "likely to have no impact on future enforcement actions," wrote the judge in a footnote to his ruling.

Even so, critics say his ruling is important, especially in light of a new report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, which finds the fee program disorganized and confusing.

"I hope this sends a strong message that the Forest Service cannot bill the public for their own mismanagement," says Leanne Siart, who brought the court case. Siart was fighting a $50 citation she received last June because she did not pay $5 before hiking in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. "They lose millions of dollars on their timber program. If they started restoring our forests instead of destroying them, they wouldn't need my $5 so badly."

Several hundred people in the Northwest received $50 citations such as Siart's for not paying fees this year, says Forest Service spokesman Rex Holloway. The agency has no plans to reconsider those citations in light of Coffin's decision.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Michael Milstein