U.S. vs Thomas Halpin
BACKGROUND: Under the Fee Demo program, which lasted from 1996 through 2004, the Forest Service had authority to charge fees for general access to National Forests. In the Pacific Northwest they used this authority to charge for parking at thousands of trailheads that provide access to undeveloped backcountry.
These trailhead parking fees were quite unpopular. In response to public outcry, when Fee Demo was repealed at the end of 2004 and replaced with the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, Congress inserted language to greatly restrict the Forest Service’s recreation fee authority, including prohibitions on fees for general access, solely for parking, and for use of dispersed undeveloped areas.
At the same time, FLREA allows the Forest Service to charge an amenity fee for an “area” that provides six specific things: a permanent toilet, picnic tables, permanent trash receptacle, developed parking, interpretive signage, and security services. These amenity fees, however, are allowed only “except as limited by” the prohibitions.
In order to protect the cash flow to which they became accustomed under Fee Demo, the Forest Service has chosen to interpret FLREA as allowing trailhead fees so long as the six required amenities are provided somewhere, perhaps a trash can ten miles one way and a picnic table five miles the other. They disregard the prohibitions, and acknowledge only the requirement for amenities. They call these huge tracts within which a fee is required “High Impact Recreation Areas” or HIRAs. The Pacific Northwest Region of the Forest Service is perhaps the worst offender. They require a “Northwest Forest Pass” to be displayed on vehicles parked at over 1,000 backcountry trailheads.
THE CASE: Tom Halpin of Twisp, Washington, arrived at the Billy Goat Trailhead on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest on August 20, 2010. The trailhead area contained only one of the six amenities (a toilet) and Tom engaged only in activities for which fees are prohibited. He parked his car (fees are prohibited “solely for parking”), entered the Forest (fees are prohibited for “general access”), and camped for six nights in a designated Wilderness Area (fees are prohibited for “camping at undeveloped sites”).
Tom returned to find a federal Violation Notice affixed to his windshield charging him with “Failure to pay established parking fee.” After reading FLREA and considering his options, Tom decided to contest his Violation Notice on the grounds that the Forest Service had exceeded its authority by charging a fee at that location and for those activities.
He drew inspiration from the outcome of U.S. vs Smith, a nearly identical case in Sedona, Arizona that was dismissed by a federal magistrate judge. Representing himself, and with advice from numerous people experienced in recreation fee law, Tom wrote and filed a Motion to Dismiss with the court. He looked forward to being able to bring his case before the judge and have the legal issues decided.
The Forest Service, however, does not want the legal issues decided in cases like this, because they are unlikely to prevail. A loss in court could throw their whole trailhead fee program out as not in compliance with the law. They did not even respond to Tom’s motion. Instead, they pre-empted him from having his day in court by dropping the charges against him, saying they had “discovered” that there was no picnic table at the Billy Goat Trailhead at the time he was charged. They claim to have since installed a table, and they contend that puts them within the law to go on requiring a Northwest Forest Pass at that location.
The Forest Service did not address any of the other issues raised, such as the continuing lack of other required amenities, or the fact that regardless of amenities there are some activities for which fees are prohibited, period. They continue their program of intimidation, issuing tickets and warnings that they know they cannot successfully prosecute. This cowardly behavior is unworthy of a federal agency charged with managing public lands in accordance with federal law.