For most tandem teams a day or weekend trip into the local forest can be a wonderful way to escape into the wilds. For a majority of forest lands managed by the US Forest Service near major metropolitan areas these trips have cost a little extra. Under a law passed in 1994 the USFS has required a “use fee” to be paid by all visitors who park a vehicle within the designated forest boundary. But as of 3 weeks ago these user fees, in 9 western states, are now illegal.
Technically the user fees have never been legal but it took a court challenge escalated all the way up to the 9th Court of Appeals to confirm that the fees violated the terms of the law. The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act authorized the agencies that manage public lands to determine and set user access fees for facilities underneath federal control. The intent of the law was to add fees (some could argue taxes) that generated revenue commensurate with the services provided allowing the specified federal agencies to be partially self funding. Under the law there were specific exclusions to this rule that allows specific groups and user types to enter, in this case, USFS managed lands without paying a fee. Basically users are allowed to access forest service lands, park along roadways, and camp in dispersed areas without paying.
The ruling (link) represents a small victory for forest users who were paying extra to simply be able to enter publicly owned lands. The implications of the ruling have far reaching consequences though. First off this case sets precedence for other challenges to the USFS fee program currently under way in other jurisdictions, including Colorado. Second the ruling is a simple interpretation of statute and does not challenge the overall legality of access fees to public lands or National Parks. Third, and finally, it is conceivable that the USFS will now be forced to “improve” various access points in order to justify the charging of fees.
In the meantime tandem teams will be free to access USFS trails and roads without worrying about paying a fee simply to do so.