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Forest grumps

Federal officials tread lightly in enforcing user fees, and opponents keep up the protests.

March 16, 2004|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

A Pasadena man named Robert Bartsch decided to take a hike in the San Bernardino National Forest last year. He also decided that, as a citizen, he owns the forest, so it should be a free hike.

Enter the rangers. For seven years, the San Bernardino, Angeles, Cleveland and Los Padres national forests have been experimenting with a controversial fee program called Adventure Pass, and Bartsch was defying it.

The Adventure Pass, Bartsch said, is a "totally corrupt un-American test program that was fostered by corporate America to benefit corporate America."

Federal officials, of course, see it differently.

The Adventure Pass program is one among scores of fee programs being tested by federal agencies that manage public lands for recreation.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 23, 2004 Home Edition Outdoors Part F Page 3 Features Desk 2 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
Forest fees -- A March 16 Outdoors article on the Adventure Pass program in Southern California national forests didn't clearly specify the fees: Adult recreational users are expected to pay $5 per motorized vehicle per day, or $30 per year, typically leaving their pass visible through the window of their car or truck. In addition, forest visits are free to those who buy or hold Golden Eagle, Golden Age or Golden Access passports.

In the Southern California forest version, all hikers, bikers and other recreational users of the forests are expected to pay fees -- for adults, $5 per day or $30 per year. Some 80% of the revenue goes to local improvements, from trail-building to bathroom repairs.

Federal officials say user fees have become vital to cover the cost of managing recreation areas. It's more sensible for users to pay fees, they reason, than to assess taxpayers who may never visit.

Though the experiment remains a temporary measure, Congress has already extended it several times, and has authorized the program through the end of 2005.

In coming months, Congress could vote to make some or all of these fee programs permanent or let them die, and there's plenty of skirmishing afoot in Washington right now.

But in the meantime, hikers, bikers and snowball-fighters face the fees, and dissidents and rangers face some delicate legal footwork.

In Southern California, "25 million people surround the forests. The impacts are incredible," said Tom Spencer, project manager for the U.S. Forest Service fee program in this region. The passes are sold at 450 Forest Service offices, centers and sporting goods and other retail stores.

But many frequent forest users, including Scott Silver, executive director of Wild Wilderness in Bend, Ore., have called for a boycott of the fees. Silver argues that "this trail fee program is only a first step. More regressive, costly and pro-motorized-use programs will follow this demonstration program."

The Sierra Club has come out against the program, joining a mixed alliance that includes left-leaning environmentalists and right-leaning small-government advocates, including Bartsch.

By the time he had his run-in with the rangers last summer, the 64-year-old Bartsch was five years into a campaign of hiking-fee defiance. By his own count, he'd received 15 "notices of noncompliance" from the Forest Service on his windshield (each threatening a fine of up to $100 if he didn't buy an Adventure Pass) and half a dozen citations, all later dismissed. But one citation stuck.

Appearing before a federal magistrate in early February, Bartsch said he would rather go to jail than pay a $100 fine. Magistrate Jennifer Lum sentenced him to a year's probation, banned him from Southern California national forests for three months and assessed him $5. Bartsch has filed an appeal. He said he had already been back to the forest, in defiance of the court's ban, three or four times.

"I imagine they'll eventually press charges against me again. It's their move next," he said.

Federal officials, meanwhile, point to commissioned polls showing 60% of responding forest users believe they're "better off" with the program, which brought in $2.8 million from Southern California visitors over the year that ended Sept. 30. Those officials estimated fee compliance here at 62%, and cite 2002 surveys suggesting that another 20% of visitors hadn't learned of the program yet.

Aiming to break in the public gently, federal officials estimate that they've issued more than 250,000 notices of noncompliance -- warnings that carry no fine -- since they started enforcement in May 1998.

The idea is to "slowly train the public," said Spencer. About 70% of the people who get the notices send their money in promptly, he said.

As for the 20% of forest visitors who believe they're worse off with these fees in place (by the pollster's count), federal officials are hoping to win some of them over with some fine-tuning.

Forest Service officials have said they won't enforce fees in some areas, including along Highway 1 in Big Sur, Highway 154 in Los Padres National Forest and most of highways 243, 74 and 371 in the San Bernardino National Forest (except at posted recreation sites).

Tamara Wilton, the regional fee program coordinator for the Forest Service in Sacramento, said rangers running fee programs nationwide were adopting a "blueprint" in coming months to make fees simpler and more convenient.

Bartsch, however, is unconsoled.

"It infuriates me that our government is trying to take away a very important piece of our freedom so that they can sell it back to us," he said. "What's next? The libraries? The police and fire departments?"

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