Striking A Balance On Forest Fees

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The Tonto National Forest faces a tough problem when it comes to figuring out how to allow people access to their own forest — without trashing the place.

That dilemma has come into sharp focus with the debate about whether the forest should let a private company run trailhead and picnic areas — and charge people every time they get out of their cars.

We are encouraged that Forest Service officials are reconsidering a first draft plan to charge people $8 every time they park their car in one of these areas so they can gain access to public lands. They should suspend charging trailhead and other forest users the $8 until they finalize plans. It does not seem right that while the are revisiting their draft they have gone ahead with charging the $8.

The whole debate has been complicated by the Payson Ranger District’s reliance on private concessionaires to operate existing campgrounds. The district wants to use those same private companies to maintain the new vault toilets in day-use spots along the East Verde and other locations in the forest.

The preliminary proposal raised grave questions — and seemed to skitter along the edge of violating the law.

The proposal would have charged people up to $8 to park at many day-use areas and trailheads. Moreover, because a private company was collecting the fees and emptying the trash, the assorted annual passes that provide access to all other federal lands would not have covered these areas. When people purchased their national passes they are assured the expensive passes will gain you access to any national park or forest land. It does not say, except in the Tonto National Forest. Even the high demand Red Rock district now accepts the national passes.

Several court cases have laid the ground rules for the fees the Forest Service can charge. The Forest Service can charge fees that cover the cost of building and maintaining the facilities, such as campgrounds that people want to use. However, judges have ruled repeatedly that the Forest Service cannot charge people simply to enter public lands or park along forest roads.

Clearly, those rulings would seem to bar charging people fees to park and use a hiking trail — or hike up the East Verde River or Tonto Creek to fish. Any private concessionaire ought to abide by the same rules as the Forest Service in this regard.

The list of trailheads and day-use areas the Forest Service wants to add to the list of fee-charging sites managed by the concessionaire generally have such minimal facilities that it’s hard to see the relationship between the fee and the cost of maintaining the facility.

Even if that weren’t true, we believe that annual passes that work everywhere else in the forest ought to work at these privately managed sites as well.

On the other hand, we enthusiastically support the Forest Service’s effort to bring the chaotic abuse of those areas by careless visitors under control. The Water Wheel Fire graphically demonstrated the danger posed by helter-skelter use. Clearly, the Forest Service must protect both the forest and the nearby communities.

So how to divide the baby? Here’s a thought.

First, the Forest Service should make an arrangement with the concessionaire to honor things like the national parks and federal recreational lands pass and the Tonto Pass, which works everywhere else. Surely, the Forest Service can give the concessionaire a credit against contracted operating costs for users with such passes.

Second, the Forest Service should not charge for use of those sites during the week. Most of those sites don’t get enough weekday visitors to bother with. Moreover, locals can plan their visits for the weekdays.

Third, we doubt that any fee charged to park at an essentially undeveloped trailhead can meet the requirements of the law.

Hopefully, some such reasonable compromise will protect both the forest and the public’s right to public lands.

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