Fee foes keep fighting on
SUMMIT COUNTY ” With High County waterfalls thundering and the most promising crop of wildflowers in quite some time, Colorado’s outdoor enthusiasts are swarming the state’s peaks, trails and campgrounds.
But hikers, birdwatchers and four-wheelers will once again face a slate of fees when they venture onto previously free national forest lands.
Initially launched as the “recreation fee demonstration project” nearly 10 years ago, public land access charges were made permanent last year under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act. But critics charge that Forest Service guidelines for implementing the act are illegal, and that the agency continues to charge fees in areas specifically excluded by the federal legislation.
The debate over access fees plays out in places such as Giberson Bay picnic and day use area in Frisco, where the agency charges $7 per day, with a season pass available for $35. The area is well maintained, with toilets kept relatively clean even on busy Saturdays, and a handful of scenically set picnic tables.
A for-profit Texas company called Thousand Trails collects the fees. The company is the major campground concessionaire on the White River National Forest.
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“I’m starting to expect fees,” said Chris Martel of Denver while gearing up for a float-fishing session Sunday morning. Martel said he has noticed a trend of increased fees becoming more widespread, not just on national forest land, but in state and even county parks.
“First you pay your fishing license, then you open your wallet again when you get to the lake,” he said. “It’s inconvenient, first of all. And seven bucks? That does get your attention.”
Although he wasn’t excited about paying the fee, Martel said he understands there may be a need to collect fees to manage heavy use in some areas. But he said he wished the Forest Service did a better job of getting the information out, especially financial details about where the money goes.
“I don’t know if it really costs $7 per car to take care of this area, clean out the toilets, pick up trash,” he said.
Officials with Thousand Trails have previously said they can only afford to maintain day-use areas if they charge a fee.
Opponents of the fee program have said they will try to draw the line at fees for developed sites if they can’t roll back the fees entirely.
“The law says you can’t charge just to park and hike,” said Robert Funkhouser, president of the West Slope No Fee Coalition. “The Forest Service has no intention of complying with the law. In fact, they are openly ignoring the new law. They’re charging for sites that don’t meet the requirement of the law.”
White River National Forest officials said the new law doesn’t affect any of its fee sites; they all qualify under Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, according to spokeswoman Sue Froeschle.
In and around Summit County, those fee sites include the road up to Mount Evans in Clear Creek County, as well as a winter fee at Vail Pass, where the agency charges for parking at a Colorado Department of Transportation rest area.
It’s also not clear to Funkhouser if the fee at the Cataract Lake/Eagles Nest Wilderness trailhead is authorized under the act, which forbids fees for dispersed backcountry use. The area is managed in conjunction with camping facilities at nearby Green Mountain Reservoir.
According to Funkhouser, the law only allows fees at developed sites that offer a very specified set of amenities, including improved parking areas, permanent toilets, picnic tables, permanent trash containers, interpretive displays and security services.
Entrance fees for national forest and BLM lands are prohibited, as are fees just for driving through an area or for access to dispersed backcountry areas. The restrictions were intended to address some of the objections to the unlimited fees that were allowed under Fee Demo, which was due to expire at the end of 2005 and was becoming increasingly unpopular nationwide.