Fee fighters refuse to pay

  • Diana Fassino, fee protester

    photo courtesy Diana Fassino
  • Protester holding sign "No fees"

    Illustration by Diane Sylvain

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Sun Valley, Idaho, resident Diana Fassino returned from a hike last July 31 to find a ticket on the window of her car.

She'd been walking in Adams Gulch on the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, an area popular with equestrians and mountain bikers, and the site of one of the Forest Service's 83 fee demonstration programs.

The ticket informed her that she had parked without a $15 annual pass, and she would have to return to forest headquarters and buy one.

She declined, and received a letter in September demanding she pay a $50 fine or appear in court. She checked a box saying she'd prefer court. The most anyone has been fined for refusing to pay is $75, but lawyers say protestors like Fassino could face up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.

"Why they call it a test and a volunteer program and then send you to jail if you don't buy it, I don't know," says Fassino. She says "fee demo" is a slippery slope toward commercializing the public lands. A native of England, she cites rampant commercialization in Sherwood Forest and fears it will happen here.

"It's happening all over America, and people are asleep," she says. "They don't see it coming. I would simply hate to go to court. I've never been to court in my life. But if it would help, I would do it." The locals are behind her all the way, she adds.

"People were coming up to me in town and saying they would bake me a cake with a file in it."

But Fassino didn't hear a word from the Forest Service, and now, she may never see her day in court. In mid-January, the U.S. attorney in Boise told the Idaho Mountain Express she would not prosecute fee violators, saying "the program relies on the federal justice system to prosecute what are essentially parking tickets."

In a similar case in December 1998, a Los Angeles County judge dismissed a case against Robert Bartsch, ruling that the pass was "discretionary," not mandatory.

Larry Auxter, who faced trial in U.S. District Court in Redding, Calif., on Jan. 26, 1999, says, "When they dropped the case against me, they wrote it was "in the interests of justice' - I'm quoting them." He had refused to pay a $15 fee to climb Mount Shasta. "I got wind that the reason they dropped the case was because they didn't want the judge to set precedent."

Auxter, the chairman of the Mount Shasta planning department, was already a vocal opponent of the fee when he was issued a ticket for his September 1998 climb.

"I don't mind paying my own way," he says, "but there were no improvements on my path, and I don't want to pay for nothing."

Not everyone has been as lucky. In January, a New Mexico judge fined Kevin Brady $75 for parking without a $3 pass at a trailhead in the Sandia National Forest. Brady argued that trailhead signs did not indicate that the pass was mandatory, and that Forest Service officials hadn't actually seen him there. A U.S. attorney rebutted these arguments, saying Brady wasn't entitled to any special privileges. Brady paid the fine.

The mixed reviews from the courts leave other fee protesters scrambling for firm legal ground. Brent Finley, Diahn Swartz, Lynn Jacobs and Diana Byrum, for example, were cited at different times in recent months in Arizona's Coronado National Forest. None had paid for a $5 day pass at the base of a road leading up Mount Lemon. All four are now awaiting trial.

"I claim it's a freedom of religion violation," says Finley. "I go to wild places like the wilderness up on Mount Lemon to have spiritual connections with the creative forces."

John Joline, cited Aug. 6 for not displaying a recreation pass on his windshield in New Hampshire's White Mountain National Forest, thinks prosecution makes a mockery of the "demonstration" element of the program.

The Forest Service claims wide public support, Joline says, "but if your endorsement is being coerced, it's clearly invalid. I don't endorse the fee, and if I get a pass I become part of the statistics being recorded as endorsing the fee."

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Hal Clifford

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