Forest Service Pass Information
In February of 2012, a federal judge ruled that charging general access to forests violates the USFS’ own fee policy. This ruling has made the FS discontinue charging a fee for access to Mt. Lemmon (parking in undeveloped areas). The judge ruled that the FS could not charge for access to national forests (hiking, biking, camping, and picnicking). They could only charge for developed sites: having developed parking, permanent bathrooms, picnic tables, etc. This allows people who drive up to an undeveloped trailhead to hike for free. In the appeals court’s unanimous ruling, Judge Robert W. Gettleman wrote, “Everyone is entitled to enter national forests without paying a cent.” He also wrote the secretary of agriculture, whose department oversees the U.S. Forest Service, “shall not charge an entrance fee for federal recreational lands.”
Also, the court stated that collecting fees needs to be done in an efficient manner. My interpretation: if they want to charge for parking at a particular area, they must have a way to pay there. They can’t expect users to drive into a town miles away for a pass, then back to the forest to enjoy it.
Reportedly, a similar ruling was made against the Red Rock Fee area around Sedona in 2010, but they were still charging people the fee (including myself) until June 2012 when they made changes to their fee structure. It’s estimated that Sedona brings in over $800k a year from the Red Rock passes.
I have looked at websites that address fees for Mt. Lemmon and Sedona. Both are ambiguous. I called up both administrative offices. Both admitted that you don’t need passes for most areas (though for some a pass is still required). Neither office could tell me explicitly what areas needed passes and suggested that probably it was best just to buy one to be safe. Both offices were very friendly and took the time to answer my questions (though I did not press any point beyond just asking what the policy was).
The best rule of thumb that I came away with is that if the area has a ton of picnic tables, permanent bathrooms, kiosks, grills, etc. (most of us know which ones these are), then you still have to have a pass (though the Mt. Lemmon person told me that if you don’t use the facilities, they can’t charge you).
Madera Canyon and Sabino Canyon still charge a general access fee. I can see how Sabino can do this under the policy (access is via the big parking area, tram, etc. so by default you are using the improved facilities). I do not know how Madera Canyon is keeping the fees in place. My guess is that it hasn’t been challenged like Sedona or Mt. Lemmon.
Both of these ruling could have significant impact of they way the FS collects fees and obviously, the amount of money generated. If Sedona loses, $800k a year, that’s a big hit to the area.
Here are the websites / articles I looked at:
More information to follow as it becomes available.