forest_adventure_passFrom 1996 until 2005, the Forest Service, BLM, Park Service, and Bureau of Reclamation were given authority under a demonstration program to charge fees for anyone to do anything anywhere on land under their management. Under this “Fee Demo” program, entrance fees were charged for vast areas, including entire National Forests. But Fee Demo was very unpopular and Congress took action in late 2004 to put limits on recreation fees and to prohibit them for general access without use of developed facilities and services. They repealed Fee Demo and replaced it with a much more restrictive law called the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, or FLREA.

In 2004, Representative Ralph Regula, chief sponsor of FLREA, said in a press release:

“As passed by Congress, H.R. 3283 [FLREA] would limit the recreation fee authorization on the land management agencies. No fees may be charged for the following: solely for parking, picnicking, horseback riding through, general access, dispersed areas with low or no investments, for persons passing through an area, camping at undeveloped sites, overlooks, public roads or highways, private roads, hunting or fishing, and official business. Additionally, no entrance fees will be charged for any recreational activities on BLM, USFS, or BOR lands. This is a significant change from the original language. The language included by the Resources Committee is much more restrictive and specific on where fees can and cannot be charged.” [Emphasis in original]

Representative Regula clearly believed that the new legislation would limit the agencies to charging only for amenities, and guarantee Americans the opportunity to park their vehicles, the opportunity to pass through an area, for general access, for access to dispersed areas, to visit overlooks and travel public roads and highways, all without being charged a fee. He emphasized that the Forest Service and the BLM cannot charge an entrance fee in any form.

In addition to specifying that the above activities would be free of charge, the legislation created a description of what a fee area should look like. Because fees could only be charged for amenities, not for entrance, fees could be charged only for a destination visitor or interpretive center that provides a broad range of interpretive services, programs and media, or areas that have substantial federal investments and contain all of the following amenities:

  • Designated developed parking
  • A permanent toilet facility
  • A permanent trash receptacle
  • An interpretive sign, exhibit, or kiosk
  • Picnic Tables
  • Security Services

In response to the passage of FLREA, the Forest Service created what they called “High Impact Recreation Areas,” or HIRAs. Their rationale was that they could combine widely separated areas into a single unit, and then charge visitors for entering or parking within the unit, on the assertion that a visitor could, if they drove far enough, use all the amenities. As one Forest Service representative described the situation, “If they don’t use them [the amenities], that’s their problem.” By re-designating most of the former Fee Demo areas as HIRAs, the Forest Service continued to charge fees in pretty much the same way as they had before. WSNFC sponsored a ground-truth survey conducted by our supporters in their local regions and documented that more than 75% of recreation sites within HIRAs did not have all six of the required amenities. Public opposition continued, and several court cases successfully challenged the concept of HIRAs.

In 2009 the Forest Service conducted an internal review of HIRAs, but it was never released publicly. A copy was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, but it was so highly redacted it looks like a top secret military document.

In February 2011, the Forest Service announced another nationwide review of HIRAs. In November 2011 that review was completed and each Region of the Forest Service received a letter from the Washington Office listing approved modifications.

Picnic_table_In_Trailhead_Parking_ Lot_10-16-2015The first step? You guessed it – change the name. The term “HIRA” was abolished, and a new term, Standard Amenity Fee Area, or SAFA, was substituted. But the review called for the SAFA designation to be applied to every site within the former HIRAs that offers any amenities, even if they are not used, and for the fee requirement to be enforced as a parking fee even though fees “solely for parking” are prohibited. Where necessary, the Forests were told to “close the amenity gap” by installing new facilities even at locations where they had never been needed or wanted, just so they could charge a fee to park there. Their “build it and they will pay” approach has resulted in hundreds of backcountry access points that require a fee for parking just because a picnic table or a toilet has been installed there, even if the vehicle’s occupants are miles away enjoying undeveloped recreation. Despite several successful legal challenges to this approach, the Forest Service continues to operate under the proposition that if they provide amenities then they can charge for them whether they are used or not.

Below are some of the key documents in the HIRA saga. You can also read details about the completed and ongoing legal challenges under the “Is That Legal?” button in the main menu.

Statement by Rep. Ralph Regula on enactment of FLREA, annotated.

FS Implementation Guidelines
Forest Service internal policy document describing how forests should implement fees under the FLREA. This is where HIRAs were invented out of whole cloth. Our analysis of this document follows.
FS FLREA Implementation Guidelines

FS Implementation Guidelines WSNFC Analysis
In this analysis paper we analyze how the Forest Service is instructing its employees on how to sidestep the law, not how to follow it.

The list of all 96 HIRAs nationwide, encompassing almost 1.5 million acres of public land and over 500 trailheads that control access to undeveloped backcountry.

HIRA Report With Redactions
The Forest Service claimed they were very confident that their High Impact Recreation Area fees, which are not authorized anywhere in federal law, still were somehow legal. In response to questions from Congress, objections by the public, and finally legal action, they conducted an internal review in 2009 but never released it publicly. The review report was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, and the response was this copy that is so highly redacted it looks like a top secret military document. Or maybe a slice of swiss cheese.

2011 02 25 HIRA Review Memo 1
Washington office directive to the regions for a review of all HIRAs. Note the date on this document is a typo – it was actually released on February 25, 2011.
2011 02 25 HIRA Review Memo

2011 02 25 HIRA Review Memo 2
More detail for the Regions about the review of HIRAs that they are to undertake. What is missing? Two things: 1) any participation opportunity for the public until the very end of the process when all the decisions have already been made; and 2) any objective review by anyone outside the agency. This is like asking a fox who has had his very own henhouse to guard whether he wants to try a little tofu instead of eating chicken all the time.
2011 02 25 HIRA Review Instructions

2012 01 18 HIRA Review Washington Office Approvals
Letters sent to each Forest Service Region showing what changes to their High Impact Recreation Areas the Washington Office approves. Final decisions are still up to the local Forests following public participation and Recreation Resource Advisory Committee review.
HIRA Letter Region 1 Montana
HIRA Letter Region 2 Colorado Wyoming
HIRA Letter Region 3 Arizona New Mexico
HIRA Letter Region 4 Idaho Utah
HIRA Letter Region 5 California
HIRA Letter Region 6 Oregon Washington
HIRA Letter Region 9 Northeast States

HIRAs Invalidated By Federal Court
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on February 9, 2012 that standard amenity fees (the kind that are charged within a HIRA) may not be required from anyone who simply parks and accesses federal recreational land without using any facilities and services. The ruling applies also to standalone fee sites that are not within a HIRA. Here are the ruling itself and media stories about the impact of it.
2012 02 10 9th Circuit Overturns Fees
2012 02 15 Adventure Pass Impacted
2012 02 10 Court Rejects Mt Lemmon Fee
9th Circuit Decision
2012 02 10 Court Halts Mt Lemmon Fee
2012 02 10 Court Invalidates Mt Lemmon Fee
2012 02 16 Court Ruling Affects Adventure Pass
2012 02 15 Adventure Pass Could End
2012 02 17 Restore the Public in Public Lands

2012 03 01 Press Release Fees Will Continue
Forest Service press release defying the appeals court ruling and proclaiming that their illegal fees will continue unchanged.
2012 03 01 Press Release Fees Will Continue

2012 05 16 Internal Memo to Stop Enforcement
Memo from FS Deputy Chief Leslie Weldon instructing the National Forests to stop enforcing standard amenity fees – commonly known as day use fees. This was an internal agency directive, the public was not informed.
2012 05 16 Internal Memo to Stop Enforcement

2012 10 10 Internal Memo No Enforcement
Internal memo and two enclosures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The memo requires each Region to report their progress by November 15, 2012 on getting their fee areas into conformity with the Forest Service internal HIRA review. The first enclosure is a repeat of the May 16 memo instructing the forests to stop enforcing standard amenity fees. The second enclosure instructs the Forests to notify the public that enforcement will cease beginning January 1, 2013. That notification has not yet occurred.
2012 10 10 Internal Memo
2012 10 10 Enclosure 1
2012 10 10 Enclosure 2

HIRA Review Media
Media stories about the 2011 review of HIRAs by the Forest Service. The emerging picture is one of local Forest managers thumbing their noses at the Washington headquarters recommendations. Is there any adult supervision in this agency?
2012 01 25 If A Fee Is Charged In The Forest
2012 01 25 HIRA Fees Questioned
2012 01 24 Maroon Bells Fee Legitimate?
2012 01 24 Forest Service Eyes Fee Changes
2012 01 27 Green Mountain Reservoir May See Lower Fees
2012 01 27 Federal Parks and Recreation
2012 01 31 Red Rock Pass Changes Led to National Revisions

Notice Of Required Fee Memo
Internal Forest Service memo introducing a new form to be used as a non-enforcement compliance tool, i.e. an intimidation tactic, to get people to pay fees that exceed the legal authority conveyed to the Forest Service by law. These are used in situations when a real ticket – known as a Violation Notice – would probably not be upheld in court.
Notice of Required Fee Memo