Thursday, September 13, 2012

Citizens sue US Forest Service over concession fees

Extra fees unpopular at Rose Canyon Lake AZ.

TUCSON -- The Forest Service allows facilities operated by commercial concessionaires to charge fees that the agency is prohibited from charging. A nationwide policy of privatizing recreation sites on National Forests is being challenged in federal court by a diverse group of stakeholders in three western states.

In a civil suit filed Wednesday in Washington DC, the plaintiffs assert that the U.S. Forest Service allows private concessionaires to charge recreation fees that the agency itself is prohibited from charging. These fees include access to undeveloped areas, scenic overlooks, and charges solely for parking. Also at issue is the Forest Service's policy that new fees imposed through the issuance of special use permits to concessionaires can bypass the public comment and citizen advisory committee review that federal law requires.

Recreation fees on federal land are governed by the 2004 Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, or REA. Fees are authorized under the REA for campgrounds and day use sites that meet certain minimum requirements, but fees are expressly prohibited for some activities even where those requirements are met. According to REA, new fee sites require public notice and review, but the Forest Service is not following this standard in overseeing private management of new fee sites. The Forest Service has taken the position that the REA's requirements and restrictions only apply when the fee is collected directly by the agency. When contracting with a private concessionaire to operate a recreation site, the Forest Service claims, the fees charged by the concessionaire are exempt from the REA.

The REA also established federal recreation passes that can be purchased at a national or regional level to cover day use site fees and provide discounts on camping for seniors and those with permanent disabilities. The Forest Service is obligated to accept these federal passes, but they allow their private concessionaires to reject them. As more and more sites are placed under concessionaire permits, the value of federal passes is dramatically diluted. Concessionaires often issue their own private annual passes and require those for access to the federal facilities under private control.

About half of all Forest Service campgrounds are operated by concessionaires, representing about 80% of reservable campsites, which tend to be in the most popular places. Since the passage of the REA in 2004 the Forest Service has been transferring day use sites to concession management as well, and income from day use now represents about 12% of concessionaire revenue. Many of these day use sites were never approved for fees through the public participation and review process required in the REA. Some do not qualify for fees at all because they are undeveloped sites that only provide access to trails, rivers, or lakes.

The plaintiffs in the case include Bark, an Oregon non-profit that watchdogs the Mt Hood National Forest, and five individuals in Oregon, Arizona, and Colorado who are working with the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition. All are being represented by Matt Kenna, a Colorado-based public interest attorney.

The five places named in the suit are representative of hundreds of others across the country. They are the developed recreation sites on Oregon's Mt Hood National Forest, including the popular Bagby Hot Springs and Big Eddy day use sites, Rose Canyon Lake on the Coronado National Forest in Arizona, Second Crossing on the Tonto National Forest in Arizona, Walton Lake on the Ochoco National Forest in Oregon, and Rampart Reservoir on the Pike National Forest in Colorado.

"These recreation facilities are located on federal land and were built with taxpayer dollars. The Forest Service can't just declare them exempt from federal law by hiring private contractors to run them. It's a backdoor route to the privatization of our public lands and an outrageous disregard of congressional direction," said Olivia Schmidt, Program Director at Bark.

"We have been raising these concerns with the Forest Service for several years but they have refused to adjust their policies," said Kitty Benzar, President of the No-Fee Coalition. "They seem to be more concerned with the profitability of the concessionaires than with providing access to affordable recreation for the American public. This litigation is being undertaken to establish that the National Forests belong to the people, not the federal agencies and their profit-driven recreation industry partners."

"Rose Canyon Lake in the Catalina Mountains and similar concession fee sites on National Forests should be returned to public control and open access," said Daniel Patterson, sportsman and former state lawmaker. "Federal Forest Service schemes to privatize our American public lands and charge taxpayers more for access are unfair, unwise and should end." Rep. Patterson was a plaintiff in a recent federal lawsuit that struck down the unpopular Catalina Mountains fee on the Coronado National Forest near Tucson.

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