Southern Sierra Pass, Sequoia National Forest
Peter Wiechers, a resident of Kernville in the Kern River Valley of California, filed this lawsuit challenging the Sequoia National Forest’s implementation of the Southern Sierra Pass fee program on February 12, 2013. In it, he said that the Sequoia was charging a fee for sites that don’t meet all the requirements of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act.
Specifically he questioned whether a porta-potty meets the definition of “permanent toilet” as the law requires.
Additionally, he said the Forest was charging a fee for activities that FLREA prohibits the Forest from charging for, such as parking and general access. For Wiechers, the final straw was when a Notice of Required Fee was placed on his truck in June, 2012, while he was kayaking on the lower Kern River, nowhere near any developed facilities.
The lawsuit resulted in a decision by the judge strongly agreeing with Wiechers that a porta-potty is not “permanent” and stopping the Sequoia from charging a fee at the Miracle boater put-in on the Kern River because it offers only portable toilets.
However the judge did not agree with Wiechers that visitors who don’t use amenities need to have alternative free parking available so that they can access undeveloped areas for free. That decision conflicted with another California court, which said there must be some way to access the four national forests in southern California for free if no amenities are used. Wiechers announced his intent to appeal the parking issue on the Sequoia, at the same time the Forest Service announced they would appeal the same issue on the SoCal forests.
After much negotiation, a settlement deal was reached in June 2016 that withdrew the appeals in both cases. In the settlement, the Forest Service agreed to stop charging for parking everywhere. Instead, they will only charge a fee for use of sites with certain legally required amenities, including a permanent toilet. If the amenities are located at a trailhead then there must be free parking available within 1/2 mile for hikers, horseback riders, and other trail users who do not use the amenities and only access the trail.
We will be monitoring closely to ensure that the Forest Service lives up to its obligations under the settlement agreement, and we invite anyone who sees a situation they think is in violation to contact us so we can follow up.
It’s wonderful that California hikers will once again be able to access undeveloped forest areas without paying a fee – it’s just too bad it took years of litigation to get them to comply with the law.
Read the legal filings and media about the case below.