Tidwell defends fees for forest recreation areas

Maintenance and improvements take money, but people tend to be more amenable to paying that money if they can see where it’s going.

At least that’s the opinion of United States Forest Service (USFS) Chief Thomas Tidwell responding to questions about National Forest usage fees.

“Fees are always controversial, and ideally we would not have to charge a fee, especially when it comes to recreational facilities,” Tidwell said. “The reality of it is that it takes resources to be able to maintain these facilities. I think the best thing that we can do is, if we can show when we are charging a fee that the public sees the benefit, the direct benefit of that. It doesn’t go into the United States Treasury, but they can actually see their fees, how it’s being used on the ground. It’s easier then.

“I know personally, I feel better about paying fees when I know, okay, it’s going to provide a better restroom or a parking lot that I’m not going to step out into the mud, better access so that I can get my car up this road. That’s the challenge.”

Usage fees were at the center of a court ruling last year which resolved a case between the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition and the Forest Service, Adams v USFS.

In the decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District overturned the dismissal of a case in which the No-Fee Coalition contested the Forest Service charging fees for unimproved parking along a roadway near the Mount Lemmon Recreation Area in the Coronado National Forest in Arizona.

The ruling stated the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act of 2004 “unambiguously” prohibits charging fees just for parking or for usage of land that does not provide facilities.

At the time, USFS Washington Press Office Program Manager Joe Walsh said the ruling dealt with only that specific case and the Forest Service was reviewing its fee program.

A number of other cases involving usage fees are ongoing nationwide.

Tidwell said the Forest Service has been forced to utilize fees due to shrinking funding.

“It’s just the reality that as our budgets continue to go down, especially in recreation, we have to find ways to be able to do that (provide improvements),” Tidwell pointed out. “It really comes down to being able to provide what the public wants. Every recreational facility we have is for the public. The Forest Service doesn’t need campgrounds. So all of it is in response to what the public wants and needs. Our challenge is to be able to find ways to maintain these facilities so that they’re safe and they provide the experience that the public wants.”