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High Impact Recreation Areas
NEWS FLASH! On February 9, 2012, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that charging a fee just to park at a trailhead (or other general access point) in a National Forest or on BLM-managed land is not allowed under the law! Even if there are "amenities" like a toilet, picnic table, trash container, etc provided, unless you use them you do not have to pay a fee or display a pass. This decision affects all so-called "HIRA" fees, as well as fees at standalone sites that are not within a HIRA. Specifically, it applies to the Adventure Pass in southern California, the NW Forest Pass in Washington and Oregon, the Red Rocks Pass in Arizona, the Mt Lemmon fee in Arizona, the Mt Evans fee in Colorado, the White Mountain National Forest Parking Pass in New Hampshire, and dozens of others. The "HIRA Review" that the Forest Service already had underway (but had not yet acted on) is rendered essentially irrelevant by this court decision. Read the decision for yourself HERE.
In 1996, Representative Ralph Regula, then Chairman of the House Interior Appropriations Committee attached the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program (Fee Demo) onto the must-pass Omnibus appropriations bill. He similarly extended it twice more, in 1998 and 2000. In 2004, with Fee Demo set to expire and Senate Bill 1107 promising to end fees except in the National Parks, he once more attached a rider onto that year’s Omnibus Appropriations bill, creating the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, or REA as the Forest Service calls it. Here’s what he had to say about it on December 15th, 2004.
“As passed by Congress, H.R. 3283 would limit the recreation fee authorization on the land management agencies. No fees may be charged for the following: solely for parking, picnicking, horseback riding through, general access, dispersed areas with low or no investments, for persons passing through an area, camping at undeveloped sites, overlooks, public roads or highways, private roads, hunting or fishing, and official business. Additionally, no entrance fees will be charged for any recreational activities on BLM, USFS, or BOR lands. This is a significant change from the original language. The language included by the Resources Committee is much more restrictive and specific on where fees can and cannot be charged.” [Emphasis in original]
Representative Regula clearly believed that the new legislation would limit the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) to charging only for amenities, and guaranteeing Americans the opportunity to park their vehicles, the opportunity to pass through an area, for general access, for access to dispersed areas, to visit overlooks and travel public roads and highways, all without being charged a fee. He emphasized that the Forest Service and the BLM cannot charge an entrance fee in any form.
In addition to specifying that the above activities would be free of charge, the legislation creates a description of what a fee area should look like. Because fees could only be charged for amenities, not for entrance, fees could be charged only for a destination visitor or interpretive center that provides a broad range of interpretive services, programs and media, or areas that have substantial federal investments and contain all of the following amenities:
Designated developed parking
A permanent toilet facility
A permanent trash receptacle
An interpretive sign, exhibit, or kiosk
In response to the passage of the REA, the Forest Service created what they call “High Impact Recreation Areas,” or HIRAs. Their rationale seems to be that they could combine widely separated areas into a single unit, and then charge visitors for entering or parking within the unit, on the assertion that a visitor could, if they drove far enough, use all the amenities. As one Forest Service representative described the situation, “If they don’t use them [the amenities], that’s their problem.”
Authorizations typically come with restrictions. For example, most of us are authorized to operate motor vehicles. But we are not authorized to operate our vehicles without regard for speed limits or traffic signals, nor can we operate our vehicles under the influence of alcohol. Similarly, the REA grants authority, but with restrictions. While it authorizes the Forest Service to charge fees for the use of amenities like visitor centers and developed campgrounds, it prohibits the Forest Service from charging entrance fees, fees for general access, fees solely for parking, or fees to travel through to other places, like the undeveloped backcountry, or wilderness.
The Forest Service’s designation of HIRAs as fee areas is a lot like a drunk authorizing himself to operate a vehicle as long as he drives less than 20 mph.
The restrictions placed on the Forest Service are there in response to public outcry over fees and because of public demand for free access to public lands. Most of us probably don’t object to modest fees for highly developed areas, like visitor centers and campsites, even though we may not want to see every campsite developed so as to support a fee program. Through the Recreation Enhancement Act, Congress acted to respond to the public and give Americans free access to our public lands.
In 2009 the Forest Service conducted an internal review of HIRAs. The report of that review was never released publicly. In 2011 a copy was requested under the Freedom of Information Act. The request was initially denied, and the denial was appealed. In response to the appeal a highly redacted copy of the report was released. The redactions are so numerous that the released copy looks like a top secret military document! This lack of transparency by a federal agency in how our public lands are managed is shameful. You can see the released report, with redactions, HERE.
In February 2011, the Forest Service announced another nationwide review of HIRAs. In November 2011 that review was completed and each Region of the Forest Service received a letter from the Washington Office listing approved modifications.
The first step? You guessed it - change the name. Most HIRAs will no longer be called that. If the Washington Office's approvals are implemented there will be substantially less public land subject to fees. But that's a big IF. These letters were sent to the Regions as little more than mere suggestions. The Forests are now supposed to take them to the public for input and to the Recreation Resource Advisory Committees for review.
It will be essential for you, the public, to weigh in as soon as you get the opportunity. Make your local Forests apply the FLREA restrictions strictly and provide for free access as specified in the law.
You can read the review documents HERE.