Public lands agencies are charging for nothing

  • Fee sign at Red Rock recreation area in Coconino National Forest, Arizona

    Kitty Benzar, Western Slope No Fee Coalition
  • Kitty Benzar, Western Slope No Fee Coalition

If a fee falls in the forest, yet rangers refuse to listen, can the government still keep charging you that fee? Well, yes, if you’re in Sedona, Ariz., within the Coconino National Forest’s Red Rock Ranger District, and in other forests as well.

Apparently, even federal judges can’t stop the agency from taking your money. If you’ve bought a Red Rock Pass lately, which enables you to park your car and go for a hike in the forest, you may have been duped into buying a pass that legally, you don’t need to buy.

That’s what the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Feb. 9, 2012, in a case involving fees levied by the Coronado National Forest in Tucson, Ariz. The appeals court ruled that the Forest Service had been illegally charging fees that are expressly prohibited by the Forest Lands Recreation Enhancement Act of 2004. Since that decision, the court’s ruling would seem to apply to all national forests all over the country, right?

But if you take a look around the Red Rock Ranger District here in Sedona, signs continue to call some locations “fee areas,” and other signs warn that “all parked vehicles must display a valid recreation pass.”

According to Connie Birkland, public affairs specialist for the Red Rock Ranger District, the signs are fine and legal because “the Mt. Lemmon decision (in Tucson) doesn’t seem to affect us. We are not interpreting it as such nor do we feel we are affected by it.”

But here’s what the federal land-enhancement law specifies and what the court upheld: A site must have six amenities in place in order for a fee to be charged at any location. Those six required amenities are designated developed parking; a permanent toilet facility; a permanent trash receptacle; an interpretive sign, exhibit or kiosk; picnic tables; and security services.

The law expressly prohibits fees “solely for parking, undesignated parking, or picnicking along roads or trail-sides for persons who are driving through, walking through, boating through, horseback-riding through, or hiking through federal recreational lands and waters without using the facilities and services; and for camping at undeveloped sites that do not provide a minimum number of facilities and services.”

In the US v. Smith landmark case about fees, Sedona resident Jim Smith challenged a ticket he received for failing to display a pass while his car was parked in an undeveloped area. In his decision in this case, Judge Mark E. Aspey of Flagstaff wrote that “(The Forest Lands Recreation Enhancement Act) is an extremely comprehensive and precise statutory scheme clearly delineating specific instances in which the public may be charged an amenity fee … and quite plainly prohibiting the agency from establishing any system which requires the public to pay for parking or simple access to trails or undeveloped camping sites.”

In what seems like an effort to create additional sites where fees can still be collected following the Smith decision, the Coconino National Forest “enhanced” as many locations as possible.  Of course, these new facilities will now require additional funds to be properly maintained.

Then along came the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision. The lower court had ruled that it was not necessary for the Forest Service to determine whether a visitor used any amenities while recreating on national forest land. The appeals court scotched the federal agency position, which was that so long as the amenities were present in an “area,” a fee could be charged.

In the Appeals Court decision, U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman wrote that the agency’s arguments on this point were “illogical.” No fee, the judge said, could be charged solely for parking, even if amenities were present. In fact, said Judge Gettleman, “everyone is entitled to enter national forests without paying a cent.”

But the Forest Service disagrees with this court decision. On March 1, the agency sent out a press release saying that fees would continue on national forests and that news outlets had “misportrayed a recent court decision” when they indicated anything to the contrary. Yet the agency failed to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, and the case has not been reopened on the local level, which had been a possibility.

So fees have fallen flat in the forest, and no-fee activists believe that the appeals court decision must now apply to every national forest. While that may be true, the news seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

Cindy J. Cole is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She writes in Sedona, Arizona.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Erin Huggins
Erin Huggins Subscriber
Aug 10, 2012 09:24 AM
Cindy Cole is a little obsessed with this topic. Over the last two years I have been reading articles and stories that she has written about this Red Rock Pass, and she has successfully and single handidly turned me onto the side of the US Forest Service. Every article I read of hers on this subject just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

If you would have asked me four years ago, if I thought the Red Rock Pass program was justified, I would have told you no. No, because I firmly believe that people shouldn't have to pay to access their national forests...especially if there isn't any infrastructure or amenities in that specific area that I am using. However, today, and many Cindy Cole articles later, I fully support the Rock Rock Pass program. It is a heavily used forest, and the US Forest Service budget has been gutted over the last few years. Therefore, charge away! The Sedona area forest is beautiful. It's trashed by visitors and needs to be kept up with. And I honestly don't care if I have to pay for a section of the forest even if it doesn't have a picnic area of a toilet.
Jim Smith
Jim Smith
Aug 10, 2012 03:09 PM
Erin, if you want to pay you can send the Forest Service a donation. The point of the article is that the Ninth Circuit Court said mandatory fees are illegal. Case closed.
Todd Kemp
Todd Kemp
Aug 10, 2012 05:49 PM
This subject has been a thorn in my side for years. I simply tear up the tickets I get on my windsheild and throw them out. Once the law enforcement officer writing the tickets saw me tear up a ticket he had just left me. He approached me and threatened to write me another citation. I just laughed at him and drove away. In the 6 or so years I have been doing this on USFS and BLM lands here in Oregon, I have never had either land management agencie follow up on their threats. I once made a small card explaining that because I was there for either spiritual, scientific data collection or other official reasons, I was exempt from fee requirements. I placed this on my dashboard where the recreation pass would normally sit and to my surprise I avoided many tickets. I wish people wouldn't be fooled into actually buying these passes and just enjoy the back country on our National Forests.
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Aug 10, 2012 07:25 PM
This is one of the functions of HCN that feels the pulse of real interaction with nature and wilderness specifically. I first camped out when I got tired of military marching in the gym with the Boy Scouts and took some hot dogs and a can of pork and beans and made a campfire in the woods. Many years later I took a Greyhound from Chicago to where the road touches Wisconsin's Ice Age trail and disappeared into the woods for two weeks-- no permit, nobody knew I was there. When I took a friend there months later, the "Rangers" picked us up and took us to a station and made us pay forty dollars at ten o'clock at night before we could return to our campsite. When I canoed around Lake Michigan, public lands closed at nine o'clock and were patrolled. When I first found Tower Beach, one could spread out a sleeping bag on the beach. Now it's patrolled. The only beaches one can sleep on are privately owned and discretion is generally rewarded. Wilderness is essential to the human psyche, and makes a pivotal addition to the culture of asphalt and TV. It's in our best interests as a country to enable people to experience it.
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Aug 10, 2012 07:39 PM
Watching the stars rise out of the lake--
sunlight on flashing Bear Creek,
Sunset at solstice centered on the lower east side,
cruising out on an air mattress among the lily pads,
steam filling the cleft of mountain above Cougar Reservoir.
looking a hundred and fifty miles downrange at Nepenthe,
the lava fields on the Pacific Crest Trail.
The visceral voracity of the Everglades,
serenity among Ed Abbey's rocks in southeast Utah.
Life is short-- don't miss it.
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Aug 10, 2012 07:49 PM
the stark austerity and pristine simplicity of Boundary Waters,
having the entire visible Mississippi River to yourself.
Fox, geese, beaver, turtles, muskrat, deer, coyotes,
ducks, squirrels, and songbirds among the skyscrapers
along the Chicago River. Passage is free at locks and dams.
There's plenty of sandy beaches in the wind-- out of the reach of bugs,
free firewood and river towns with grocery stores and laundromats every few miles. But carry store-bought water.
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Aug 11, 2012 05:28 PM
"Lines.Composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey"
"Ode on Intimations of immortality from recollections of early childhood"
Pete Flanigan
Pete Flanigan
Aug 12, 2012 01:47 PM
I understand the disconnect that occurs when you are asked to pay for wilderness, it seems like it shouldn't be so. It is the public's land and you shouldn't pay $ to enjoy it. However, the things that go into providing for your enjoyment of the land (facilities, roads, rangers and other people to help manage wildlife and everything else in the parks) are SEVERELY underfunded and the payments for these passes go directly back into supporting the parks/forests. Sure I would not pay to park but if my $ is going to support the outdoors that I love to be in, the $30 a year (for here in SoCal) or whatever it is where you reside is a small price to pay. I can see the legal issues on both sides but just from an economics perspective of maintaining our forests and parks, this is the wrong decision.
Jim Smith
Jim Smith
Aug 12, 2012 04:14 PM
My problem with the Red Rock Pass here in Sedona is that fees from wilderness users seem to be mostly used to support the tourist industry, rather than protect the forest. Sure, the amenities like toilets and trash containers at campgrounds and day-use sites are maintained, but no one has objected to the users of these amenities being charged for the services provided.

Along many of the trails the Forest Service has erected large rock-filled wire cages, apparently to give them a more "developed" look for the tourists. These are mostly within site of town, so it's not a matter of someone getting lost. A number of visitor centers are staffed, including a Forest Service person at the Sedona Chamber of Commerce building. The Forest Service has an agreement to distribute C. of C. member information at its visitor centers; I suppose that includes information about the helicopter and biplane tours that destroy any hope of peace and quiet in the canyons with low-flying aircraft.

I personally wouldn't mind paying for maintenance on some of the local roads, but since the Forest Service began charging fees some of these have deteriorated from good roads easily traveled by most cars to 4WD jeep roads now used mostly by jeeps and ATVs. My suspicion is that the local jeep tour and ATV companies had some influence in this policy--they are certainly the ones that have benefited.
Todd Kemp
Todd Kemp
Aug 12, 2012 06:28 PM
Pete, in this case we first need to understand the difference between "Parks" and "National Forests". Parks (I'm assuming you mean National Parks) are managed by the Department of the Interior in such a way as to maintain and preserve the natural ecosystem as it was before man began manipulating it. The native wildlife, plants and land are all protected to in some ways act as a biological reserve. The public is welcome and encouraged to visit, learn from, and enjoy our National Parks. I think most people have no problem paying to hike, picnic and camp in these parks. There is a lot of maintenance and work that goes into preserving and protecting these areas. Then we have Wilderness Areas that make up a small percentage of our National Forests (NF). Our National Forests are managed by the Forest Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture. Most of our NF lands are managed to provide natural resources like timber, minerals and a cheap source feed for cattle. The Forest Service collects fees from timber companies to log our NF's as well other natural resource extractors. I don't think anyone has any problems paying to stay at a NF campground or park at a fancy trail head that has security, bathrooms, trash cans and a potable water source. Many people say that in general the Forest Service does not like Wilderness because they can't "manage" it. That means they can't extract natural resources from designated "Wilderness Areas". The Forest Service does do a minimum amount of trail maintenance, but that is slowly becoming less and less. I think it is at these primitive, minimally maintained trail heads that used to be log decks or landings when logging was going on that people like me refuse to pay to use. I agree that the Forest Service and most all Federal and State Land management agencies are severely underfunded. And I support paying for the improvements that I use. But that is what this is about....I refuse to pay for nothing. And I consider "nothing" as a wide spot in the road where a trail starts. Maybe the Forest Service should start charging logging companies more to clear-cut our National Forests to make up for disappearing funding. Besides, I used to work for the Forest Service and I saw first hand how these recreational fees were spent within the department and you would be surprised!
Aug 14, 2012 06:40 PM
We all choose to live in a civilized society, and that means collectively paying to maintain collective assets. Why on earth would anyone whine about paying to help support our national treasures? It matters not whether or not you personally benefit from a particular asset. We all share many things, including responsiblity. Financial and otherwise.
Jim Smith
Jim Smith
Aug 14, 2012 08:18 PM
A civilized society means living under the rule of law. When an agency like the Forest Service deliberately and intentionally violates the law, it's despicable.
Sean Magoory
Sean Magoory
Aug 16, 2012 03:14 PM
I would have no problem paying for a pass if I knew that other users of the Forests paid their share, for the cost and impact they have. Until the cost of an AUM (animal unit month) increases for those who have permits to graze cattle on our forests increases to 1) pay to mitigate the damage to soils, plants, and wildlife and 2) to cover the costs of the Forests to perform the required NEPA, CWA, SHPO, and ESA coverage. Then I will be okay paying to go for a hike. Currently the cost to a permitee is $1.35 per cow per month. This is a virtual giveaway. Yet they want me to pay $5 per visit fee to go for a hike? Don't think so.
Todd Kemp
Todd Kemp
Aug 16, 2012 05:23 PM
Thank you Jim and Sean. It seems that some (probably most) people still think that the U S Forest Service just pays a bunch of rangers to ride around putting up Smokey the Bear signs and helping out poor little forest Animals. Fact is like Sean said, mostly what they do is sell off our publicly owned natural resources to the highest bidder! The fees they collect don't even come close to mitigating the damage that industry does to harvest these resources. I agree with Sean, when the cattle ranchers and logging companies pay a fair price to rape our forests, many of us won't mind paying to walk on what's left of them. Here in Northern California, Oregon and Washington there are millions examples of this travesty. Next time you go out hiking on your favorite trail, just drive a little further over the next ridge. Those areas that look like a feed lot or a bomb might have went off and leveled all the big trees are most likely still public lands.
Adam Hannuksela
Adam Hannuksela Subscriber
Aug 19, 2012 08:29 PM
I think we should pay. I will pay an AUM for myself and my dog. We won't eat a bunch of grass or defecate in streams either. That seems fair. It must be, I think a parking area will cost less than a $15,000 cattle guard or 5k a mile for fencing. I think most will be willing to pay if it is fairly distributed.
John Taylor
John Taylor Subscriber
Aug 28, 2012 04:16 PM
I would hate to think that the fee around Sedona would keep less wealthy people from visiting the beautiful sites. While I can afford the fees, there should be an option for people to be able to visit this area who cannot afford the fees. I don;t know how this could be done successfully, but the fact some people drove out to the middle of nowhere to check it out should not be prevented by a required fee.These places should be available to all regardless of ability to pay. Make it optional and many would still pay anyway, because they would want to support it.
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Aug 28, 2012 11:25 PM
"Whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on. The small landowners are the most precious part of a state." --Jefferson
I agree with old Tom that the earth is given as a common stock for all men and women. Charging a fee to walk in National Forests or camp on beaches defeats that object. We benefit from making the experience available to all without any picayune fees. How petty. Life is worth more than money.
Dan North
Dan North
Jan 29, 2013 02:16 PM
We pay taxes that are supposed to be allocated to these lands. The fact that Congress would rather use our tax dollars to subsidize mining, timber, grazing, and other private concessions on public land rather than giving us, the owners, access is telling. Charging us fees to park is just a way of increasing our taxes.