National-forest access could soon be free again

National-forest access could soon be free again

27 December 2007

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Three senators from the Northwest have introduced a bill that would restore free public access to national forests in California and across the West.

If S2438 is passed and signed into law, plans to charge the public to park, hike, fish and hunt in national forests in Northern California would be scuttled and current fees charged on Angeles, San Bernardino, Cleveland and parts of Los Padres national forests would end. It would also eliminate the program to raise entrance fees automatically at national parks every three years.

The bill is called the “Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act.” Senators Max Baucus, D-Mont., Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, proposed it this month.

It would allow fees for camping and boat launching, where ongoing maintenance and security is required. But it would end fees for parking, hiking or wilderness treks, as now required in Southern California and Mount Shasta, and has been proposed for other national forests in Northern California.

The problem with the fee program is that implementation varies from forest to forest, and the money often seems to disappear without oversight. In Southern California, the U.S. Forest Service charges $30 per year for an Adventure Pass, yet services have not increased. Some campgrounds have been closed, and most feel the Forest Service has diverted the money to fill gaps caused by budget cuts and to pay for fire fighting.

Elsewhere, many of the best forests for recreation, such as Plumas, Six Rivers, Shasta-Trinity and Eldorado, do not charge for parking, hiking and fishing. Yet there has been a move started to establish a new recreation fee program in Eldorado National Forest, located on the west flank of the Sierra Nevada near Placerville, even though neighboring forests do not charge.

Another anomaly is how federal government offices in the recreation business run different programs and charge different fees for the same thing. The best example is for those climbing Mount Whitney or Mount Shasta.

At Whitney, Inyo National Forest runs an advance lottery with a severe quota and charges $15 per person. The Web site for Inyo National Forest is a spider web of complexity, and even though the Whitney Lottery has become one of the most anticipated recreation events of the year in California, on Wednesday the lottery page read, “Page is currently being updated” and “Thank you for your patience.”

At Shasta, there is no quota, the mountain is largely commercialized by guides, and there can be logjams of groups of people linked together on the main route in apparent violation of the Wilderness Act. The Forest Service charges $30 for an Annual Summit Pass, yet it is required only above 10,000 feet.

Under the new law, the Forest Service could charge fees only if six listed amenities are present: permanent toilet and trash can, picnic table, interpretive sign, designated developed parking and security services.

The Forest Service is studying the ramifications of the bill and has yet to provide a response.

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