Breaking News
Home » Rockies » Oregon » Bend » Forest Service Moves to Intimidation to Collect More Entrance Fees
On September 29, I wrote about a historic court decision overturning the Forest Service's (FS) policy of charging an entrance fee to visit or park in the Red Rock High Impact Recreation Area (HIRA) in Arizona's Coconino National Forest. In my commentary, I not only urged the FS to forego appealing the ruling but also to throw in the towel and comply with the court decree and stop charging the fee--and then purge the National Forest System of all 95 HIRAs. I'm one for three.

Forest Service Moves to Intimidation to Collect More Entrance Fees

On September 29, I wrote about a historic court decision overturning the Forest Service’s (FS) policy of charging an entrance fee to visit or park in the Red Rock High Impact Recreation Area (HIRA) in Arizona’s Coconino National Forest. In my commentary, I not only urged the FS to forego appealing the ruling but also to throw in the towel and comply with the court decree and stop charging the fee–and then purge the National Forest System of all 95 HIRAs.

I’m one for three.

Almost surprisingly, the FS decided against appealing and hence punishing Jim Smith, a regular guy who likes to hike and park for free on the land he owns, with years of litigation. I dearly hope this decision marks a change in the sentiment in the Obama administration’s Solicitor General’s office, but it seems more likely that Smith’s case was simply so solid the FS had no grounds for appeal. In any regard, though, before you applaud the victory and start thinking the federal government has suddenly become more reasonable and benevolent, you need to hear what the bosses at the Coconino National Forest did in the aftermath of the court decision

Almost before the judge’s signature had dried, the Coconino sent out a press release with the title “Red Rock Country Continues to be a Fee Area.” It contained no explanation of why the agency had chosen to ignore the court decree, only a lot of concern about not having enough money to hire rangers to collect fees–not one word about what the agency was doing, which is, at the least, an unprincipled stretch of the law of the land. (When I find out precisely how the FS plans to skate around the decision, I’ll let you know.)

In the meantime, can you say “above the law?”

But the FS disregarding this court decision and keeping illegal HIRAs in place isn’t the worst news. The Red Rock situation now segues into a bigger issue–how the FS basically bullies public land users throughout the country into “donating” many millions of dollars in fees to the federal government when people have no legal obligation to pay.

(WARNING. If you already have high blood pressure, you might not want to read the rest of this column.)

The Red Rock case is only one of several the FS has had to fight in recent years to enforce its quasi-legal entrance fee program, so now the agency has come up with a plan to fleece public land users without having to defend it at the courthouse. It’s all outlined in an internal memo, which I’m sure the FS would just as soon you didn’t see (so if interested, click here to read it), but here’s the basic message: The FS has a new strategy for intimidating people into paying fees they have no obligation to pay.

The mechanism is a new invention called a Notice of Required Fee (NRF).If you find one under your windshield wiper, there’s no reason to fill the envelope and drop it in the nearest iron ranger or mailbox. Most people do, though, because of how the FS has deviously designed it. (Click here to see the entire form.)

“NRFs look like tickets, walk like tickets and quack like tickets, but an NRF is NOT A TICKET! Only a Violation Notice is a ticket,” Kitty Benzar of the Western States No-Fee Coalition told NewWest.Net in an email.

She speculated that the Coconino National Forest plans have the Red Rock area “continue to be a fee area” by starting to issue NRFs instead of Violation Notices (like the one Smith received) at least in undeveloped parts of the HIRA. That’s what FS has done in other fee hot spots such as Mount Evans in Colorado, the Mount Lemmon and Tonto National Forest in Arizona and throughout “Adventure Pass Country,” the National Forests of California.

The truth is, people who use National Forest backcountry and park at trailheads to go hiking, biking, camping, climbing or otherwise use the undeveloped federal land, including in HIRAs such as Red Rock Country, Mount Lemmon or Mount Evans, do not have to pay the entrance fee. And if they’re issued an NRF, they still do not have to pay the entrance fee. People only have to pay if they use developed areas with “amenities” like toilets, interpretive displays or picnic tables.

Or as Benzar puts it: “Anyone who pays a NRF is essentially making a voluntary donation to the Forest Service.”

But since the NRF has been intentionally designed to look like a ticket, most people pay. Who can blame them for paying when they read this bold-faced statement on the envelope:

“Failure to pay the required fee may subject you to criminal enforcement under 16 U.S.C. 6811 and 36 CFR 261.17. To remedy this Notice, enclose a personal check or money order for the $5.00 recreation use fee payable to the USDA Forest Service in the attached envelope. Postage must be added to the envelope.”

That thinly veiled threat is only true if and when the FS follows up the NRF on a future visit to your National Forests with a real ticket, a Violation Notice, which can subject public landowners to criminal prosecution for daring to enter a National Forest without paying the access fee.

So, I say, pitch NRFs in the trashcan, if you can find one. If enough people do, the FS might get the message.

If you read the internal memo, you can understand why the FS likes the NRF concept. Previously, National Forest recreation tax collectors sometimes issued warning notices (Non-Compliance Violations or Opportunity to Pay Notices). When issuing these warnings, though, the federal agency could not put you in its criminal database called LEIMERs (Law Enforcement and Investigations Management Attainment Reporting System), but by issuing NRFs, the agency can and does put you in LEIMERS.

“They (FS) can only prosecute you if they follow the NRF with a Violation Notice,” assured Benzar, “but your license plate might go on a list, and you might be more likely to get a Violation Notice later. It’s basically a threat to break your knees later if you don’t comply now. They like to issue NRFs so they don’t have to waste time defending them in court.”

The FS now knows courts will likely dismiss tickets issued in places or for activities where they aren’t legally authorized to do so, such as parking at undeveloped trailheads to go hiking, she said, “but there is money to be made from intimidation (ask Tony Soprano), and that’s what a NRF is–an intimidation tool.”

How bad is this? I think I’ll put it mildly. It’s a sneaky, mean-spirited, downright embarrassing ruse. Intimidation has replaced enforcement because, it seems, the current entrance fee program isn’t enforceable.

And then the FS twists that knife another half-turn at the bottom of the faux ticket where it states: “Thank you for your cooperation.” Ouch!

I wonder how high-profile political appointees like Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack or Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell can even look in the mirror after condoning such irresponsibility. Or perhaps they don’t even realize how low their recreation managers have gone to continue collecting entrance fees.

To read NewWest.Net’s extensive coverage of the recreation fee issue, click here.

About Bill Schneider

Check Also

One Big Sky Center

Hammes Company Joins One Big Sky Center Venture in Billings

Billings, Montana is moving ahead with discussions on the One Big Sky Center proposal, which ...


  1. Bill, you are sidestepping the point.
    This wouldn’t be an issue if the Forest Service was able to generate funds from other economic activities such as mining, grazing, and fire-moderating logging.
    The sick fact is that land management, including recreation management, has costs. Even if it is undeveloped trailheads, at some point maintenance has to be funded, or even volunteers overseen.
    I also want to state that it is profoundly unfair for rec users to gripe about this when the further truth is that ALL Americans, including those millions who never, ever recreate on USFS land, are subsidizing recreation activities through Congressional appropriations.
    For all the mung I hear about “subsidized” grazing, logging, and mineral operations (which return way more taxes to the general treasury) the silence about recreation subsidy is roaring on these pages.

  2. Yes, Dave, this would not be a problem if the Fs had enough money in its budget to replace a relatively small amount (on the federal scale, at least) of money fee collectors bring in, about half of which goes to administer the collection and administration of it. I’ve said this several times in past columns; let’s go back to the old way of funding recreation. It doesn’t have to be tied to timber or grazing or mining. Just put it in the budget, period, and pull out the Iron Rangers and toll booths…..Bill

  3. Bill, in order to put the cost into the bu8dget, they have to take it our of taxpayers pockets. Dave is right, allowing paying users in the forests would be a win win situation. It does not seem fair to force those who you will not allow to use the forests to pay your way.

  4. AZ Rep. Daniel Patterson

    The Forest Service’s unpopular HIRA fee is a scam not authorized by Congress.

    USFS should end the HIRA fees on Mt. Lemmon AZ and other National Forests.

    Rep. Daniel Patterson

  5. In defense of the Forest Service I’ve never heard a credible explanation of why Grazing permittees should pay to use the public lands and recreational users should not. Additionally, the Forest Service has to pay fire suppression costs out of its normal budget which reduces the Forest Service’s ability to carry out its other missions a great deal.

  6. What “fire suppression services” are those? The Brins Mesa fire here in Sedona was Burn Baby Burn. Little to nothing was done.

  7. Mickey–Any chance it might have something to do the fact that grazing allotment holders make money of their commercial use of public land, but recreational users do not…..Bill

  8. Yes but recreational users have an impact on the land that cost money to deal with. Fire Costs: Even in “let burn” fires the F.S. pays for planning, monitoring, and fire fighters and equipment held ready in case the fire doesn’t behave as expected.

  9. To those who argue that people who use the forests should pay and those who don’t shouldn’t, I ask: What do we pay taxes for? I think that my taxes pay to support things for the general good of all society like schools, roads, libraries, parks, police, etc. When we start charging “user fees” for things that have always been provided for by our taxes, I call that raising my taxes and I also think it shuts out those who can’t afford. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind paying higher taxes but a user fee with criminal penalties attached to not paying is regressive and punitive.

  10. If you do not think your use of the public lands is worth paying for stay home or use commerical facilities. Don’t expect the rest of the taxpayers to pay for your trailheads, toilets, etc.
    But be willing to allow those who do pay such as ranchers, loggers, miners, drillers share the land and the taxpayers can afford to let you have a free ride.

  11. Bill Schneider has yet again focused bright sunshine and crystal clarity into the dark corners of a corrupt and Rogue federal agency. The sheer arrogance of the Coconino NF is both breathtaking and infuriating.
    The U.S. Forest Service bureacracy with respect to Outdoor Recreation is treating citizens with crass disrespect. They should hang their heads in abject shame. They won’t. The problem is they have NO SHAME. They will illegally pad their coffers, ignore the existing FLREA law, and bully, bamboozle, and bulldoze recreation users as long as they think they can continue to get away with murder. The Coconino situation can only be correctly labeled as a Police State mentality.
    I am a retired 25 year outdoor recreation manager with the U.S. Forest Service. I am horrified with their descent into darkness. There are dozens of retired FS professionals equally upset and distraught. As a furious taxpayer I urge concerned citizens to contact their Senators and Repersentatives and demand an outright repeal of the existing fee law, the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act. That is only Step one. Step two is to demand that Congress take the U.S. Forest Service to the woodshed in a meaningful and businesslike way–ASAP. Total Reform of the agency is mandated. Enough is enough of them brutally running roughshod over the Public. We the people are the owners of our precious National Forest lands and waters. It is our common national and natural heritage. After the election is over carry that message loud and clear to Congress. Congress has been culpable in letting them get away with tyranny and gross malfeasance with their fee scam for over a decade. Congress must take proactive corrective action immediately. Only you can make that happen.

  12. Certainly there are some examples of “waste and abuse and too much bureaucratic overhead” in the FS as in any agency or large private corporation. The fundamental issue is the FS does not get enough appropriated funds to adequately manage and maintain dispersed recreation activities and sites, especially in popular high-use areas. And many of us are either sticking our heads in the sand or trying to off-load the cost of impacts onto “others”. It’s simply avoidance to declare that taxes we are already paying should be enough to cover the costs. I’m OK with some kind of user fee for selected areas. But I’m much more in favor of the FS developing arrangements with volunteers, non-profits (even user groups), local businesses, and governments to manage some sites and activities. I would much rather pay a user fee to a local outfit that provides summer jobs to local kids. The FS needs to think outside their sandbox a bit more, IMHO.

  13. Todd: no grazing operation, timber sale, mining or energy development operation on public lands has EVER returned enough money to federal/state/local coffers to fully cover the costs of public agencies which administer these activities, issue permits, conduct inspections, build roads and clean up inevitable messes.
    Any libertarian economist who claims otherwise is ignoring a great deal of costs shoved off onto the public.
    By contrast, recreationists’ impacts on public lands are minor, while their economic impacts on local economies are significant. The financial elephant in the room (other than the agency capture phenomena whereby extractive industries have co-opted segments of the Forest Service) is wildfire fighting, where millions and billions have been spent to protect undefensible cabins in the wildland/urban interface. So if these cabin owners, from Joe Sixpack to billionaires, refuse to create defensible structures and spaces around their cabins in the woods, why should the public pay vast sums to save them from their own folly?
    That’s a libertarian-type question.

  14. By your claims Inky, NFS should have lots of money now that logging has been virtually eliminated, grazing has been decreased, and drilling and mining are subject to so many court appeals that it has slowed (which is why the foreign oil cartels feel comfortable increasing the price of oil to us). So tell us why isn’t the NFS rolling in money without those groups?

  15. User fees or no, we should probably clarify how funds are generated for the Forest Service, and “fire-moderating logging” is not one of those ways.

    Under a capitalist system such as our own, the costs of going in and thinning trees far exceed the profits that such activity can generate. (unless you are “thinning” 400 year-old old growth). That’s why timber extraction is a heavily subsidized enterprise (by taxpayers).

  16. Whoa – this thread has completely lost its way. It’s not about mining, grazing, or timber.

    Forest Service law enforcement personnel, in order to avoid having to defend their tickets in court, have resorted to issuing “non-tickets” that look like tickets but are actually “weapons of mass intimidation.”

    This is not about how the FS or other agencies should be funded, it’s about whether they should have to abide by federal law.

    Todd, Inky, Dave, please declare your position on this. Is the Forest Service subject to federal law or is it not?

  17. Of course the USFS should follow the law.
    Comments about grazing, logging, mining, drilling were made to note the contrast with recreation in terms of taxpayer subsidies. The FS is not rolling in money — never has, even during full-bore extractive development drives under conservative administrations.
    Ideally, Congress and presidents alike should fund the USFS to provide recreation opportunities — I have no problem with modest fees in developed campgrounds, but collecting fees for backcountry use isn’t kosher — would only be appropriate if backcountry areas became over-popular, such as picking up trash (and worse) on the 14ers.
    Extractive industry use on public lands should pay the real costs of that development — planning, regulatory inspections, roads, improvements and ultimately cleanup and reclamation. Anything else is a rip-off of the taxpayer and ill-gotten gains for the ranchers, miners, loggers and drillers, because they didn’t pay their way.

  18. Skinner, et al.,

    Restructure the agency or continue it’s primary function as a pork-delivery system for congressmen and their financially co-dependent constituents. Most comments describe various symptoms and window dressing, not root causes of what ails the USDA-Forest Service. Serving the general public is the last thing on this agency’s mind.

  19. 50% of funds collected do not go to administer the cost of collecting fees. The cost of collection is around 15-20%.

    This is a no win situation. We all want nice trailheads, toilets, but are we willing to pay for these?

    And yes, we all pay taxes. But shrinking budgets means that money that once went to toilets is now going to fire or somewhere else.

    $80 for a years pass is not too much considering the cost of movies today, the lattes you buy every morning, Disney World, etc.

  20. Sharon,
    I for one couldn’t give a rat’s ass whether a trailhead is “nice” or not. All I do at any trailhead is transition from one form of locomotion to another. The trailhead is a distant memory five minutes after I arrive at it.

    Toilets should be installed anywhere there is a demonstrated need for sanitary facilities. That’s Stewardship 101, and the tax funding is there. So no, I am NOT willing to pay at the trailhead to have a toilet located there.

    Discretionary appropriations to the Forest Service from Congress went up 93% between 1999 and 2010 – three times the rate of inflation. (Source: USDA Forest Service Annual Budget Justifications) Shrinking appropriations are a myth. If the Forest Service can’t get the money to the ground that is an administrative problem they need to solve. The GAO has given them numerous suggestions how they can do that, over a period of many years. (GAO-09-443t)

    There are a whole bunch of people in this country who cannot afford a latte every morning. I am sick of the arrogant attitude of people who feel qualified to decide for me how much I can afford or how I should prioritize my purchases, and who have the gall to equate a National Forest with Disney World.

    I don’t want trailheads that are all gussied up with “amenities.” I just want to be able to go for a walk in the woods.

  21. Perhaps what you are unaware of is the Notice of Required Fee may be used in lieu of issuing a Notice of Violation. Personally, I disagree with the philosophy of issuing the Notice of Required Fee, that basically give the perp as second chance. I issue a Notice of Violation from the get go. My philosophy is you are responsible for the decisions you make, so man up.

    Having said that, I applaud the ability to use funds that were generated locally, e.g. outfitter-guide permit fees, for local projects such as trail work or invasive species control. Much better than the funds disappearing into the black hole of the general fund like previously. But, I don’t agree with the proliferation of fee sites, specifically trailheads.

  22. SueAnn Owens-Singer

    RE: Warren from Sedona’s comments. As I recall, the fire fighters were seen as real heroes by most of the people of Sedona. True, Brins Mesa is a barren wasteland but a very real fear was that the fire would get into Oak Creek Canyon and be a fire chimney all the way to Flagstaff. The fire did not get down into Sedona and they stopped it in the Canyon. So a little credit where due.

  23. Well said Sue Ann, thanks.

  24. Re the Brins Mesa fire, I guess it all depends on who you talk to in Sedona. Nobody I know considered anyone “heroes”. Everyone I know was appalled at the lack of action as Brins Mesa was left to burn for days. I know, nature will rebound, but that’s not the point. Besides, this thread is not about FS firefighting or lack thereof. It’s about them violating federal law and continuing to violate federal law. No way private citizens could get away with their type of behavior.

    All you people who want the government to have money: Hey, what’s stopping you cheapskates? Give it to them!

    As for the rest of us, we want the government to abide by its own laws, something the FS is having a hard time doing.

  25. “…lost revenue from paying users that were forced off public land by the ‘me onlys’.” Really. Seems to me that logging revenues returned pennies on the dollar even when logging was at its peak in the late 80’s. Taxpayers made up the difference and probably still do. (I notice that there is still a fair amount of logging going on in federal forestland.) And, in my opinion, mining and grazing fees are so low that those uses would also have to be considered taxpayer subsidies. Having said that, I think that we should all pay taxes to maintain our national forests; EVERYONE uses our forests, whether we think so or not. Everyone who drinks clear water, breathes fresh air, enjoys our temperate climate, or buys a 2×4 or a hamburger is benefiting from our forests. So, if loggers and ranchers are subsidized by taxes why not hikers? Get rid of recreation fees. They are regressive; they shut out the poor.

  26. Well, I personally know people who love the outdoors but feel shut-out of many areas because of the fees that they can ill afford. Whether they support the local economy or not is beside the point. We could argue all day about whether we should subsidize timber companies, ranchers, miners, etc., and give tax cuts to the rich in order to support local economies – I don’t care to get into that discussion right now. And whether it is “eco-nitpickery” or solid, necessary, environmental regulation that is responsible for high administrative costs is another thing we could argue about until we are blue in the face, but whatever the reason we subsidize resource extraction (and whether or not we should) there is, in my opinion, no reason or excuse to pass the costs on to recreational users.

  27. $10 per vehicle to hike the west fork of Oak Creek in Coconino National Forest near Sedona kinda lets me out, and I don’t consider myself po’.