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Fee Simple: Why We Should Pay to Hike, Boat, Fish, Camp and Just Plain Visit Our National Forests

An adventure pass sign in the Angeles National Forest | Photo: Thomas Hawk/Flickr/Creative Commons License


John McKinney means well, and his sentiments scan nicely: "I don't think a nature hike is a forest product and that hikers are forest consumers. We're out there for something that you can't put a price on."

That's what he told the Los Angeles Times following the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' decision in February that the Forest Service had overstepped its bounds when charging for access to the national forests in the American west. According to the court, the agency's Adventure Pass system, which sold one-day passes for $5 (and an annual one for $30), violated provisions of the 2004 Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (REA). That legal finding cheered McKinney no end, but he'll discover that we'll pay a steep price for the court's elimination of user fees.

The author of such standards as Southern California: A Day Hiker's Guide, John McKinney's Wild LA, and The Hiker's Way: Hike Smart. Live Well. Go Green, McKinney knows how to navigate in the woods, revel in the joys of a dusty tramp, and find bliss in exertion.

John Miller issues a ticket for parking in the San Bernardino National Forest without a day or adventure pass | Photo: John Heil/USFS
John Miller issues a ticket for parking in the San Bernardino National Forest without a day or adventure pass | Photo: John Heil/USFS

He is incorrect, however, about his aesthetic claims for the non-economic character of a high-country ramble. Wrong too is his implication that spending a day trekking through the Angeles or the Los Padres national forests, or camping out in the San Gorgonio Wilderness Area of the San Bernardino National Forest, is an apolitical, non-consumptive act.

Let me address the second point first.

These rough-and-ready terrain are the creature of politics. Each of the four national forests of Southern California - including the Cleveland, located north and east of San Diego - was established shortly after the passage of the passage of 1891 Forest Reserve Act. This legislative initiative gave presidents the power to establish reserves on federally owned public land in the west. Yet as a matter of course no forest was ever the result of a top-down directive from the chief executive. Instead, local conservationists, civic leaders, business interests, and an array of citizens demanded from the bottom up that these public lands secure increased federal presence and regulation that in time a national forest would bring.

In this region, that protection had much more to do with the maintenance of watersheds, as timber cutting was not nearly as important as it was in the well-wooded Sierra, Cascade, or Mendocino ranges. Without downstream interests articulating the essential contribution of clean and plentiful water for community development, then, these national forests would not exist. And the recreational opportunities these mountainous landscapes offer today are a direct result of those earlier advocates' social convictions and political maneuvers.

Think about that enduring gift the next time you lace up, stretch out, and head into the Sheep Mountain Wilderness Area. When you do, recall as well that this landscape exists within another political context: all public lands that bear the wilderness designation, exist because of the1964 Wilderness Act; its passage took nearly thirty years of wrangling in and out of Congress, and the most passionate and persistent lobbying emanated from the Wilderness Society, founded in 1935.

Benton MacKaye | Photo: Appalachian Trail Conservancy/Wikipedia/Creative Commons License


"All we desire to save from invasion," asserted the society's founders Robert Sterling Yard, Benton MacKaye, and Robert Marshall, "is that extremely minor fraction of outdoor America which yet remains free from mechanical sights and sounds and smell." Their words have had special meaning in car-crazed Los Angeles.

Paying for that silence, or as much quiet as is possible in this hyper-industrialized world, is part of the civic obligation built into the 1905 creation of the national-forest system. From the start, Congress demanded that the forests (and thus their users) operate on a pay-as-you-go basis, and the optimistic first Chief of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, promised to fulfill that charge.

His was a tough promise to fulfill. While fees for grazing, later timber harvests, and later still recreation may have bolstered the agency's efforts to research and regulate resource use; protect critical watersheds and endangered species; and enhance recreational infrastructure, they never have fully balanced the budget.

Nor could they: the rates have been kept artificially low to stimulate economic development, so that until the 1980s the deficits were offset through additional public spending. Caring for the Land and Serving the People - the Forest Service's longstanding motto and commitment - always has cost money.

These expenses spiked in the late 1980s as timber harvests in the Pacific Northwest were scaled back rapidly in response to the Spotted Owl controversy; to protect the endangered bird's habitat, clear-cutting of old-growth forests, which once generated considerable income for the Forest Service, was largely shut down. By the mid-1990s, the agency faced declining budgets, and began laying off staff and reducing services.

In hopes of stabilizing these budgetary shortfalls, in 1996 Congress authorized the establishment of a recreational fee pilot project, in which hikers, boaters, campers, and other visitors to the forests would pay a minimal amount to access specific services (a boating ramp, say, a picnic area). The funding collected on an individual forest would remain there, enhancing its ability to rebuild trails, staff visitor centers, or insure a steady supply of the all-important toilet paper at trailhead bathrooms.

A waterfall in the Cleveland National Forest | Photo: Chazz Layne/Flickr/Creative Commons License


Despite these and other assorted benefits, user fees kicked off a heated debate. Hiking guru John McKinney was among those who refused to buy an Adventure Pass, a protest and pushback that in 2004 led Congress to rewrite the conditions of the fee-demo program through the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act. It prohibits the Forest Service (as well as the Bureau of Land Management) from charging for these site-specific activities:

"General access to national forests and grasslands and Bureau of Land Management areas; "Horseback riding, walking through, driving through, or boating through areas where no facilities or services are used; "Access to overlooks or scenic pullouts; "Undesignated parking areas where no facilities are provided for "Picnicking along roads or trails; and "In addition individuals under 16 will not be charged an entrance or standard amenity fee."

These provisions would become the basis for a lawsuit filed against Arizona's Coronado National Forest for levying fees on day hiking from and picnicking along Catalina Highway as it rises up the flanks of Mount Lemmon near Tucson. A lower court dismissed the original suit that alleged the Forest Service was in violation of REA. But in February, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that earlier decision and supported the plaintiffs' claims, concluding:

REA unambiguously prohibits the Forest Service from charging fees...for recreational visitors who park a car, then camp at undeveloped sites, picnic along roads or trailsides, or hike through the area without using the facilities and services.

While McKinney and other opponents of the Adventure Pass celebrated this legal win, yodeling for unfettered access to all public lands, their victory will prove Pyrrhic.

Because federal land-management agencies such as the Forest Service do not have substantial-enough budgets to cover their real costs. Because the 9th Circuit's decision has stripped forests raise badly needed dollars to clean up such trash-littered, high-impact areas as Lytle Creek in the San Bernardino National Forest and the San Gabriel River Ranger District of the Angeles. And because the American people persist in their stubborn refusal to pay taxes without curbing their insatiable demand for "free" governmental services, these great scenic assets and essential recreational spaces have and will continue to collapse under the weight of our inaction.

Until we can legislate more robust and consistent financial support for the agencies that steward our public lands, no one - not even hikers - should get a free pass.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

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