Should Private Companies be Allowed to Charge for Use of Public Lands?
Fresh off a February victory in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, legal representatives of hikers and picnickers last week sued the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) for letting private companies charge people for using undeveloped public lands. In the February case, the Ninth Circuit held that the Recreation Enhancement Act (REA), which prohibits the Forest Service from charging fees “solely for parking, scenic pullouts, and other non-developed areas,” could not be evaded simply by designating a non-developed area as “high-impact.”
Under REA, USFS may charge fees only for public lands containing national conservation areas, national volcanic monuments or a visitor center, or if it has substantially improved the land in the form of parking facilities, restrooms and trash receptacles. Otherwise, access must be free of charge.
Lead plaintiff BARK, a 7,000-member non-profit group in Oregon, claims the Forest Service is again attempting to evade REA’s bar on fees, this time by making grants to private companies that purport to allow them to charge fees to enter undeveloped USFS lands.
BARK, many of whose members live near Mt. Hood National Forest, states in its Complaint that “BARK … challenged [the] decision on the Mt. Hood National Forest covering the transfer of 28 sites (including the Big Eddy day use site and Bagby Hot Springs) to private management, and uses these areas on a regular basis. BARK’s members have been adversely affected by either having to pay new fees at these areas, or by being dissuaded from using them due to the new fees.”
Five citizens from Arizona and Colorado also joined as plaintiffs, complaining about USFS special permits allowing private concessionaires to charge fees for the use of undeveloped land in their states.
Specifically, BARK claims that private companies charge an $8 parking fee at Rose Canyon Lake in the Coronado National Forest in Arizona; that in Oregon, a private company charged for use of the Mt. Hood National Forest, “including the ‘Big Eddy’ day-use area, where visitors have traditionally parked to swim in the Clackamas River free of charge;” and that “the concessionaire now charges $5 per person to soak in Bagby Hot Springs, regardless of how they arrive.”
BARK says the Forest Service issued the special use permits without public notice or allowing for comment, and wants all the fees enjoined as violations of the REA.
The Forest Service, which is part of the Department of Agriculture, is responsible for managing 193 million acres of public land for public use and national interests, including both recreation and timber production. It is completely separate from the National Park Service, which is in the Department of the Interior, and manages almost 400 sites covering 84 million acres for preservation and recreation.
To Larn More:
U.S.A. Privatizes National Forests (by Ryan Abbott, Courthouse News Service)
BARK v. USFS (D.C. 2012) (pdf)
Timber, Beef and Off-Road Vehicle Industries Accuse Forest Service of Paying Too Much Attention to Scientists (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
Court Sides with Picnickers and Sightseers against National Forest Fees (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)
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