It appears the ongoing saga of the Adventure Pass program – a system of use-fees on Southern California’s National Forest lands continues. Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Terry Hatter Jr. issued a ruling that dealt another major blow to the program and seemed to make it much more difficult for the Forest Service to collect Adventure Pass fees.

Over the past few days, I’ve seen a lot of reactions to this ruling – ranging from anti-government glee to disbelief that the cash-strapped Forest Service was taking yet another hit. What I haven’t seen is any sort of attempt to actually explain what’s going on and what it means.

I spent the past few hours going over some Forest Service documents and reading a lot of history on the issue. My gut reaction to the news changed the more I learned, and I hope this is at least helpful to people who are just wondering what the heck is going on.

As always, I encourage and welcome other viewpoints and information – so please let me know how you feel about the issue in the comments. I know some Forest Service volunteers and employees read the site and would love to hear what they think if they feel comfortable sharing.

THE PAST IS IN THE PRESENT

The Adventure Pass has been around since 2004 but has come under heavy attack in recent years. In 2012, a federal judge ruled in favor of Arizona hikers who said they shouldn’t have to pay a similar day-use fee on National Forest land if they weren’t using the developed improvements. That same year, the 9th Circuit ruled that the decision also applied to California’s National Forests that use the Adventure Pass program – the Los Padres, Cleveland, San Bernardino, and Angeles National Forests. The Forests responded by drastically reducing the areas where fees would be collected.

Whereas previously Forest Service rangers could charge you the Adventure Pass if you parked at a developed site, the new ruling says that they can no longer do that unless you actually use the area’s improvements. The attorney for the plaintiffs suggested that rangers could differentiate between the users by establishing separate parking areas, opening up more roadside parking areas near trailheads, or by eliminating the requirement for a pass where there are less developed facilities.

IS FREEDOM FREE?

The primary motivation for the lawsuit seems to be a good one – “why should I have to pay to be on land that’s supposed to be owned by the American people?” That’s a great slogan. It sounds nice and it’s easy to understand … which usually means something else is going on.

Yes, a portion of our taxes pay for the land – but much in the same way owning a house isn’t a one-time-expense, maintaining and protecting 193 million acres isn’t cheap. This year alone the Forest Service estimates it will exceed its firefighting budget by at least $470 million and earlier in the year law enforcement officers had to save money by staying out of their vehicles for “office days.”

The primary purpose of the Adventure Pass is alleviate these budget shortfalls – especially on heavily trafficked lands near urban centers. According to the Forest Service Recreation Program Fee Accomplishment Report, in 2011 the Angeles National Forest collected $1.2 million in fees. About 2/3rds of that – $795,179 – went to maintenance and repairs. Another 17% went to visitor services and only about 3.5% was used to collect the fees themselves.

According to the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act signed into law in 2004, the use fees are intended for five things:

  1. Reinvesting a majority of fees back to the site of collection to enhance visitor services and reduce the backlog of maintenance needs for recreation facilities (including trail maintenance, toilet facilities, boat ramps, hunting blinds, interpretive signs and programs);
  2. Providing an interagency fee program that reduces confusion over differing fee programs and passes by reducing four national passes down to one.
  3. Providing more opportunities for public involvement in determining recreation fee sites and fees;
  4. Providing focused criteria and limits on areas and sites where recreation fees can be charged; and
  5. Providing more opportunities for cooperation with gateway communities through fee management agreements for visitor and recreation services, emergency medical services and law enforcement services.

LETTER OF THE LAW

No one would disagree that the Forest Service is an underfunded (or perhaps, as some say, under-efficient) federal agency. I don’t even think the people involved in the lawsuit would tell you they want the Forest Service to have less money. What they did tell us is that the Forest Service wasn’t following the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, and several judges have now agreed.

The language of the law and the Forest Service’s guidelines (PDF) are fairly straightforward – things that provide general benefits to society at large are not to be charged a fee, while activities that provide more individual benefits should. The following diagram gives some examples of activities that can be charged fees and some that can’t.

from the Forest Service FREA Guideline, dated 4/22/2005

It’s interesting to note that some of the Forests do seem to charge for those Category 1 activities. Did you know you didn’t need an Adventure Pass to park at a scenic overlook? Because I’ve definitely seen signs that would lead you to believe otherwise – including the photo at the top of this post, taken near Big Tujunga Canyon. Right below this chart in the report, the Forest Service clarifies its ban on charging for “general forest access,” forbidding any fees “solely for parking or picnicking along roads or trailsides.” Again, compare that to the sign. Does that seem like the Forest Service isn’t following its own rules?

The main issue at hand here (as it so often is) is that asterisk – “Developed Day-Use Sites.” What, exactly, does a Developed Day-Use Site entail? Again, it’s a government document, so there’s a list. A Developed Day-Use Site must include ALL of the following six items:

  1. Designated developed parking
  2. Permanent toilet facility
  3. Permanent trash receptacle
  4. Interpretive sign, exhibit, or kiosk
  5. Picnic tables
  6. Security services (meaning regular patrols)

In December of 2013, the Forest Service revised its policy on those day-use fees – and as a result a large number of areas within the Angeles National Forest became fee-free zones. All that this ruling means is that if you park in one of these developed areas but don’t use any of those items (excluding, I presume, security – because what, if your car gets broken into are the rangers going to charge you the $5 day-use fee before they call it in to dispatch?), then you don’t have to pay the fee you otherwise would.

SO WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?

Here’s my opinion: the Forest Service was definitely in the wrong to require an Adventure Pass on all the land in the SoCal National Forests. The language is very clear even to an outsider and I honestly don’t understand how the program was allowed to continue at such a scope for such a long time. I think the 2013 revision of what constitutes a fee-use area is a good compromise, as those areas generally do need more upkeep than the backcountry. However, I think this most recent ruling is at best unenforceable – and borders on being just plain silly.

Parking LotLet’s say I park my car at the Switzer Falls parking lot, but I hike directly into Bear Canyon for the day before returning to the car and heading home. I’ve now parked in a fee-use area but I don’t have to pay a fee. So how is that enforced? Will a ranger have to be permanently stationed at the parking lot? Will the Forest Service have to install cameras to monitor activity? Will I need to park in that awful overflow lot next to the Angeles Crest Highway and have to add extra distance and elevation to my hike? And if the National Forest turns into a patchwork of fee and fee-free areas, is the average visitor going to know whether or not they’ll have to pay before they leave home?

A solution for the Day-Use revisions is doable, though – and while it may cause some growing pains in the short term I think the Forest would be better off in the long run.

The Coconino National Forest outside Sedona, Arizona has a similar pass program as the Adventure Pass but it’s much better implemented. Their Red Rock Pass has one main, simple web site with information – including a note that leaving your car for 15 minutes for a photo or to enjoy a vista does not require a pass. There are daily, weekly, and annual options, almost every trailhead and ranger station in the region has an automatic pass machine that takes credit cards, and 95% of the passes’ revenue stays in the region. That National Forest actually reduced its fee-use areas in January of 2012 – before the original lawsuit was even decided. There is also a very cost-effective option to add admission to nearby popular areas not technically in the Forest to the annual fee and if you have an America the Beautiful Pass, you’re already set.

WHAT CAN WE DO?

Here in the California Forests, the boundaries of the Adventure Pass areas need to be much better defined. We need to take down all of those signs that say we need an Adventure Pass to park anywhere, make sure there are clear maps of where the fee is needed on both the Forest Service web sites and at the major entrances, increase the number of entry ranger stations that sell the passes, and perhaps install those self-service kiosks in the more popular day-use areas like Switzer Falls so people who need to pay can pay and those who don’t won’t have to.

In a perfect world, we would all be able to access this land without paying anything and all the agencies that manage them would be fully funded and never be considered for the chopping block during budget crises – but until we live in that world, I don’t think the day-use fee should be eliminated for heavy use areas. The revised area of use-fees for the Angeles National Forest that came out last year seems like a very fair restriction to those fees – and the fees themselves seem very, very reasonably priced – a Day Pass costs less than an HD movie rental on iTunes. I understand why being charged for amenities you’re not using may feel unfair to the people being charged, but I think that trying to draw a distinction between who does and doesn’t use developed facilities at a day-use site is a waste of resources – especially when the day-use fee is so low. Continuing to enforce the revised day-use areas is the best way to move forward with the National Forests – but whether you think the Forests need more resources, more efficient management, or a combination of the two – that requires a revision of the law itself.

People have been trying to clarify and simplify the law almost since it was written, and I think that’s truly the only way this situation is ever going to reach a resolution. The Western Slope No Fee Coalition is already urging its members to revise the law because of a loophole that allows the Forest Service to raise fees without public comment if it’s done through a concessionaire. Congress is working on an update to the law this year and if you want to see this issue solved once and for all I also encourage you to contact your legislators.

IMG_8132Until then – and I think many of you would agree – I’m not going to scour my maps to determine whether or not the area I’m hiking in is inside a fee area. I’m going to continue doing the same thing I’ve been doing since I started hiking out here – buying an annual pass for $30, hanging it on my rear view mirror no matter where I am in the Forest, and continuing to volunteer my time for trail work.

I love the National Forests out here. The Angeles is probably the main reason I stayed in Southern California during my first few years in the city and I want nothing more than to see it succeed and preserve its landscape for the next generations. We can continue to donate and support our nation’s wilderness as individuals in our own way, but to truly solve the problems underlying this issue we’re going to need to work together to help the Forest Service achieve the goal in its mission statement – “Caring for the Land and Serving People.”

Featured Image “All Vehicles Must Display a Forest Adventure Pass” by Thomas Hawk. Used by Creative Commons License.

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Casey Schreiner

Founder and Editor at Modern Hiker
In addition to writing about the outdoors since 2006, Casey has also been producing and writing television since 2003.He was the Head Writer on G4's "Attack of the Show," co-writer and host of "The MMO Report," and the Series Producer / Head Writer of pivot's "TakePart Live."His work has received several honors, including Webby, Telly, and CableFAX awards.
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16 Comments

  • Brian Smith says:

    A lot of rationalization going on here and legitimate reasons for these fees. I am a lifetime resident of Ca and a lifetime user of the forests. The demand for money for government entities is never ending and constantly escalating.
    What will it be next year?…I think the word ‘Disneyfication” aptly describes my attitude towards a lot of the work of the forest service. I dont see the necessity to work these trails to death, creating steps at inclines and otherwise making them into forest freeways….what will it be next.?…wheelchair access to Whitney?….this is suppose to be the wilderness…leave it alone….i dont see the need for a bunch of do gooder, busy bodies constantly messing with it. I like most am a responsible user…haul my trash and otherwise dont destroy anything…leave nothing behind. I dont need the rangers to protect me…Im well armed and always carry survival gear…I want them to go away and leave me alone….they contribute nothing for a forest adventure that i cant provide for myself…..I live at the tree line and am in the forest daily, and have been doing so long before the inundation of these boyscouts with their stinking badges telling me what to do…go away.

  • T.J. says:

    Nice job with this piece

    I just bought my yearly Adventure Pass last week. As I’ve done since they came in to effect and as I will always do.

    And if for some reason they are eliminated all together I will put my $30 in an envelope and drop it off at a ranger station.

    My very frequent usage of the forests doesn’t fall under the new guidelines so I really don’t have to pay a dime. But I figure it’s my responsibility to help pay for cost of cleaning up after the dregs of society who visit our forests only to leave it worse off than when they arrived.

    My take is that if anyone is stomping their feet over 5 bucks a day / 30 bucks a year to help a cash strapped department that is continually being defunded, then they don’t have the right mindset to behave responsibly in the forest anyway. In other words, “This is why we can’t have nice things.”

  • Kyle Kuns says:

    I agree with you about not wanting to scour maps to figure out what are fee areas and what aren’t. Personally, I always spend the the extra $5 at the time of purchase to get a second annual pass as I never know when someone might tag along that doesn’t have one and I will continue to do so.

    It’s hard for me to get worked up about a day use fee that is less than the cost of a couple hours of parking in many places in the city or an unlimited use annual fee that is less than the cost of a modest dinner out for two people.

    However,it’s easy for me to get worked up about the lack of maintenance and the assumption that volunteers should be expected to handle as much as they are now which will be used by some people as proof that funding isn’t required. You are correct in mentioning in one of your comments how much work (e.g Strawberry Peak Trail) is going on that the general public isn’t able to see (at least not yet) that is being done through a combination of funding and volunteerism . However, that is also a great example of why pretty much everything in the forest is developed for individual use and probably should be subject to Adventure Pass fees. Isn’t any trail developed and therefore a developed day use site? Big difference having a maintained trail vs. not (especially around poodle dog bush etc). As such wouldn’t parking for use of that trail also be? I would like to have seen you more passionate about that!

    While the fees collected from sales of Adventure Passes might not be the best solution, eliminating them won’t help the situation (at least not in the short term). The forests are already suffering enough due to the drought and fires. Hopefully, this controversy will inspire a genuine solution to the issue that isn’t dependent upon the fickle whims of those in charge of collecting and allocating government funding. Hopefully this will come about before too much damage is done.

    • Good points, Kyle – there is actually quite a bit of discussion (and confusion) about WHAT exactly constitutes a developed trail vs. a backcountry trail – and how many of those six items are required to constitute a “developed area.” I agree with you 100% that the Strawberry Peak Trail should be on that list … and would be more than willing to pay $5 to hike it. I think most people who hike in the Angeles actually want to contribute with Annual Passes or use-fees, it’s just that the law and policy either need to get on the same page about how that works – or, for a better solution, rewrite the law completely to be 100% clear about where those fees are charged and how they’re used to help support the Forests we love so much. And I also unfortunately agree that I’m not too confident in the abilities of Congress to get this straightened out quickly.

  • Nathan Masters says:

    I think you’re spot on, Casey. I’m always happy to pay for the improvements I use. My biggest gripe is that these Adventure Passes are so hard to procure. I normally carry around an interagency annual pass, but when those lapse it would be nice to buy a day pass at an automated dispenser with my credit card. Why can’t the Forest Service join the modern age?

  • Beth says:

    We spend $80 on an America The Beautiful Pass EVERY YEAR. Thankfully Congress passed that rather than forcing travelers, like ourselves, to purchase a new pass every time we changed states or regions (Northwest Forest Pass, Adventure Pass, Red Rocks Pass, Tonto NF Pass, etc, etc.) I know that I might disproportionately use the Forests (and BLM and other public lands) and I don’t really mind paying too much. It does seem, in addition to increased concessionaire use, that the Forests are developing more areas. They claim that this is in response to the desires of the public. Is the Disneyfication of nature cause to charge the rest of us more to use them?

    I do worry, however, that adding additional fees to use public lands further discourages families that need public lands the most to not use them. An additional $30 (or $5 day use fee) on top of gas, food, and other expenses can be taxing to strained budgets. Kids from low income households stand to gain the most from being on the land and I hate to add additional barriers.

  • I’m normally against most restrictions on hiking on public lands, but the Forest Adventure Pass is so cheap for $30/per year that it never really bothered me. You don’t even have to show ID to buy one and you get access to a ton of free campgrounds. I stayed at a campground in Hickory Run State Park in Pennsylvania a few years ago that cost 30 per night for a tent site. Pennsylvania required a driver’s license, your license plate number and a credit card on file for one night of tent camping. The ranger spent all night driving his car around the campground with his high beams on waking us up while he “patrolled”. I’ll take the California Adventure Pass system any day.

  • 100peaks says:

    I’ve always been one that is happy to pay, even if the funds aren’t going directly to where I thought they would. I’ve been able to use the pass from near the Mexico Border all the way up to Monterey. All on $30. Not a bad deal.

    However, in some parts of Los Padres National Forest (an Adventure Pass area), some drivers simply passing through the roads have been asked to show their passes. Some civil disobeyers put an end to that practice.

    I agree with the volunteer angle. In San Diego, I’ve encountered volunteers on horseback with chainsaws. No Adventure Pass dollars there. In Los Padres, I donated to a fund to purchase trail maintenance materials that were lost in a fire for a volunteer org. Again, no Adventure Pass dollars there.

    I’ve decided my course of action. Once I settle back down to San Diego, and now that my daughter is older, I am going to offer my technical resources (and back strength resources) to aid the local volunteer organizations there. I think if people were better informed about how they can help the local trails, we’d get more volunteers.

    I think the ruling is a step in the right direction, and only with the help of us citizens will it get any better.

    • Casey: Wow, I am impressed. This is a well-written and thought out piece that, for the most part, accurately covers the law. Kudos to you, and your research and writing skills. Having said that, I was a bit disappointed by the bias in the piece – and from some of the commenters about fee collection/use.

      In particular, I was disappointed to hear your take here: “No one would disagree that the Forest Service is an underfunded (or perhaps, as some say, under-efficient) federal agency”; and I was disappointed to see that many of our fellow outdoorspeople (and outdoor bloggers) who commented here feel that the Forest Service does not “do anything” with the money as they do not “do work” on the trails. Most of these comments are based on anecdotal evidence of what people have seen, which is also a little depressing to me.

      In 1998, I was a backcountry ranger for the National Park Service. While my job had many requirements, one of the main requirements was that I patrol the trails of the park to assist park visitors, assess conditions, and conduct repairs that I could manage on my own to said trails. Most major repairs were conducted by trail crews, who again, were either NPS employees, CCC employees, or yes, Forest Service employees. On a daily basis, I would probably spend at least 6 hours of my day doing trail work on my own. On a majority of occasions, such work was never observed by any members of the public. I point this out not to engage in self-promotion, but to point out a simple fact: if the Rangers in a National Park – or National Forest are doing their jobs, which in most cases they are, you – the members of the public will never know what work has been done, or how it has been done.

      I would also point out that being a Ranger is a hard job, and is done ably by people who care more about the land and public than salary or other things (for proof of this, look at the salaries for such positions on usajobs.gov). Back in my day, I would spend probably 16+ a day working when I was on the trail, when I was only compensated for a standard 8 hour day. I imagine today’s rangers have the same work schedule, and in some cases more. Finally, to claim that “Rangers” need to do more also ignores the fact that different Rangers have different jobs – some are interpretive, some are law enforcement, some are fee collectors, some are archeologists, and so forth. Being a Ranger can mean many things – but does not always mean a party will be in the field – which is also something I don’t think the public fully grasps. The position of Ranger – be it Park Service or Forest Service all strive to work as a unit to hopefully make the park/area run as successfully as possible as a whole.

      So sure, I agree with your assertion that the Forest Service – like the Park Service is underfunded. But that’s where I draw the line. I think the Forest Service operates as efficiently as possible, given the many constraints that it faces under the law, and with the resources it is provided. As for the larger issue of the adventure pass, I have to admit that while the law has been violated here, for me, I never had a problem paying. The Department of the Interior needs the money – and needed the money. I don’t regard this as a byzantine way to prevent people from being on public land; and I don’t regard it as anything sinister. Yes, it was a violation of the law; but to me, an inadvertent violation. For those people who talk about “barriers to entry”, the simple fact is that a majority of people don’t pay for adventure passes prior to this issue, and will not pay for similar passes now that this litigation has occurred. From what I see, public lands are facing a tragedy of the commons today – everyone wants to use them, but few wish to pay, or assist in preserving them. Personally, I feel the resources utilized to litigate – and discuss this issue could have been better used on other projects, or, in actually uncovering real government abuses. Just my .02 though. Thanks for listening!

      • Thanks so much for the kind words and more importantly, for chiming in with some firsthand experience. The comment about being under-funded or under-efficient was not so much my personal opinion as an acknowledgment to both ends of the opinion spectrum that comes out of issues like this. There’s usually one side that sees a performance issue as one of being shorted on resources and another that thinks they can line-item veto their way out of the mess. I personally tend toward the middle of that because more money doesn’t solve organizational problems but neither will “trimming the fat” if there’s no fat to be trimmed (see: attempts to cut PBS funding to balance the national budget).

        I also get saddened when people base their arguments on anecdotal evidence and called that out on a comment here (and on the Facebook discussion too). I’m a proponent of bike lanes and transit here in L.A. so you can imagine the amount of times I’ve had to deal with someone who heard about a friend who maybe saw a cyclist run through a stop sign on a side street once so now ALL cyclists are terrible. It’s the same thing here – just because someone’s never seen a ranger digging a trail with her own two hands doesn’t mean those rangers are just sitting around doing nothing – being a Ranger is a lot of jobs! As I’ve said in the thread, the ANF has more than 668,000 acres of land, 548 miles of trail, and just 350 full-time employees. That sounds like that team is spread pretty thin, even with the volunteer support.

        I think a lot of the hand-wringing with this topic comes down to this – a lot of people WANT to help the Forest by paying access fees, but courts have found that the Forests may weren’t totally within their legal right to charge access fees in the ways they’ve been doing. I also think that every single person should have a right to access their wilderness lands but agree that the ‘Adventure Pass as a Barrier to Entry’ argument is a red herring. 5 bucks a day is almost nothing and the Annual Pass is an even better deal.

        Like you, I’m going to continue paying for the Annual Pass and displaying it no matter where I am. And whenever another option comes around to support the Angeles, I’ll do that, too.

        Thanks so much for taking the time to comment!

        • 100peaks says:

          Last Adventurer:

          I certainly didn’t mean to imply that the Forest Service and their employees are resting on their laurels. Quite the opposite. I have seen (and have heard from those close to the source) that the budgets are continually cut for the forests and that there are fewer rangers spread over many acres. While the rangers are busting their butts to keep the trails clear and safe for the public, there are just too many acres to get to it all.

          My point about volunteering was intended to illustrate how the public can help in direct ways other than just buying an Adventure Pass, not to imply that rangers did nothing.

          I hope I did not offend and thank you for your ranger service!

  • Ande says:

    Thanks for the article- I agree with your call for legal clarity, and we need transparency regarding the use of fees. I have always just paid for the pass, although much of that has been done in good faith and convenience. The books need to be open or waste does/will accumulate, as Calitrails mentions.

  • Fascinating review, thank you for spending time to review the issues here. It is anybody’s guess what recreation area will have to be closed and what recreation activities will have to be reduced because of the loss of these meager funds — which weren’t very much but still helped pay for toilet paper, gasoline, and spray paint removal tools. :(

  • calitrails says:

    They don’t seem to spend any of their revenues on trail maintenance, so I don’t see why hikers should be that concerned with a drop in collections. I personally don’t care if they have less money to spend on developed sites.

    Also, I think your data on collections is inaccurate. This article here states: http://www.pasadenastarnews.com/general-news/20140507/adventure-pass-nixed-for-visitors-who-hike-bike-into-southern-california-forests-judge-rules

    “In the San Bernardino forest, $1.38 million was collected in revenues and $364,000 was spent on maintenance and repairs; $282,295 on visitor services and $373,446 on cost of collections, which included collections on the Angeles, Cleveland and Los Padres forests as well, according to the 2011 report.”

    That is an awful lot of waste. I have a lot of grievances with the Adventure Pass, but I would be able to overlook them if I actually saw a lot of work being done to improve the wilderness by rangers. Any trail repairs or cleanup that I ever come across is all done by volunteers.

    • Right before that line in the same article is the line I quoted, which only concerns the Angeles National Forest. It seemed like when they quoted the number for the San Bernardino Forest they either combined some numbers or got confused, but their numbers for the ANF were straightforward – $795,179 for maintenance, $204,562 on visitor services and $43,066 on fee collection.

      I would also be wary of basing Forest-wide opinions on personal observations. There are more than 668,000 acres in the Angeles National Forest, with 53 established trailheads and 548 miles of trail – all with a staff of just 350 full-time employees (PDF). Even with nearly $800,000, that’s a lot of ground to cover. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not happening somewhere – and remember that a lot of work is going into repairing and restoring areas damaged by fires that are off-limits to hikers, too. When I was volunteering on the Strawberry Peak Trail, there was a Forest Service crew working with us that had been working for several months.

      I agree, though, that I wish the benefits of those fees was more visible to users of the Forest.

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