Call it a victory for those of us that have resented the National Forest Adventure Pass since it's inception. And potentially a huge budgetary setback for local Forest Service agencies.
Most of you have probably bought the Pass and either shrugged and ate the $30/year, or muttered unpleasantries under your breath as you reluctantly pulled your wallet out, or wondered what the hell that citation on your windshield was about and why you now had to not only pay the $5 fine but also fork over the full fee for the stupid Pass. Still some of you, like me, have collected half a dozen or more citations and completely ignored them without consequence.
Here's a little history regarding the National Forest Adventure Pass. Congress has been cutting funding to the National Forest Service and it's local agencies since 1994, refocusing some of that funding on propping up the National Parks Service. Other, less profitable agencies such as National Forest Districts and the BLM have been forced to adapt their mission in the face of budgetary restrictions. How were these agencies to make up some of those fiduciary losses while maintaining services and access to public lands? Enter the bandaid known as the Adventure Pass.
Politically, public lands for recreation don't make any money. They're not sexy in Washington. These huge tracts of land have always been problematic and the general public and their activities on public lands has always taken a back seat to oil, mineral, logging, and ranching interests. Oil leases, hundred year leases, mineral rights, and grazing rights have been a source of income for the Department of the Interior while public recreation costs money in terms of services, roads, maintenance, trail upkeep, policing, wildfires, etc... The only means that the National Forest Service has at it's disposal for generating revenue beyond their annual federal funding must be exacted from the public in the form of pay camping, use fees, and in recent years the experiment known as the Adventure Pass. That federal funding, however much it is cut on an annual basis or as a result of Congressional hijinks like the sequester, comes from American taxpayers, and that is why the Adventure Pass has come under scrutiny. Regardless of how you feel about our increasingly unrepresentative democratic institutions and the fact that Congress in particular represents the best government that money can buy, the nature of America's political relationship with it's remaining wild places is largely one of disinterested neglect. In the halls of power there are very few well funded high constituency voices appealing for more investment in the preservation of and access to public lands. Most of those few constituencies have their own narrow agendas and are frequently at odds with those same underfunded federal management agencies struggling to meet their stated missions. Clearly, allocating the funds to staff and maintain the mission of these agencies is not a priority in Washington. Follow those budget restraints all the way down to the local level and the results are access restrictions, fewer services, and the Adventure Pass.
In 1996 Congress passed legislation authorizing a recreation fee pilot project that allowed National Forest districts to create fees for recreation use and invest them within the local district. Many California Forest Districts enthusiastically adopted the Adventure Pass model. Here's a quote from one local National Forest District website regarding the fee:
"Wherever you live in Southern California, you're just a short drive away from a spectacular wild lands adventure. Mountains as high as 10,000 feet, canyons, vast forest lands, lakes, waterfalls, rivers and streams, and a wealth of recreation activities from cycling to skiing, all waiting for you in your National Forest Lands.
These precious lands are a unique resource, ours to enjoy and take care of so they will always be there... for us, our children, and their children.
That's the reason for the National Forest Adventure Pass."
Here's the problem with that. Since we as the public already pay for access to public lands through our taxes, adding a fee to those taxes is, in effect, a form of double taxation. Last week U.S. District Court Judge Terry Hatter Jr. delivered a ruling which, if it stands and becomes the precedent for future rulings on this and similar fees, would eliminate millions of dollars in fee generation for Southern California Forest Districts, some of the most heavily visited public lands in the country. Here's a quote from The LA Times (article) which discusses the latest ruling in the controversy:
"[the judge] sided with four hikers who contended that Southern California forests were improperly requiring them to buy an Adventure Pass even when they didn't use any developed facilities.
The pass was adopted under an unpopular national program of forest recreation fees that has been scaled back by Congress and the courts.
Citing a 2012 federal appeals decision involving an Arizona national forest, Judge Hatter said that case made it clear that "the Forest Service is prohibited from charging a fee solely for parking".
Although the Angeles, Cleveland, Los Padres and San Bernadino forests reduced the number of fee areas, they continued to require a pass at certain busy sites equipped with amenities such as toilets, interpretive signs and picnic tables -- even if hikers were only parking and not using the facilities.
That, Hatter said in his opinion Monday, violated the law.
A regional Forest Service spokesman said the agency was reviewing the decision and had no comment."
-LA Times article 04/30/2014
One thing seems to be clear, that the Forest Service still has the right to require the Adventure Pass for those using day use and drive-in campground facilities.
This ruling indicates that Judge Hatter saw the clear distinction between simply parking at a trailhead and the use of facilities which the Forest Service is obligated to maintain. Requiring payment for use of public lands without the use of Forest Service facilities was unlawful under regulations barring issues of double taxation. This ruling validates what I have always believed and explains why I have not purchased a pass in many years and have chosen to ignore citations for parking in campground parking lots at trailheads. I am curious to see wether this ruling affects those of us who obtain a permit to drive on gated forest service roads. For instance, I have been required to purchase and show an Adventure Pass when applying for a permit to drive on Nordoff Ridge Rd. It will be interesting to watch how the Forest Service handles that and other issues related to this ruling.
One thing is clear, that unfortunately for them the Forest Service in Southern California has just lost a ruling which generated a healthy stream of revenue for their beleaguered agencies. How that affects access and the quality of services as they exist today remains an unknown as of yet. I doubt this bodes well for the local agencies involved. It does seem extraordinarily unlikely that public interests regarding recreation on federal lands will be well represented by those holding the federal pursestrings.