Sedonan Challenges Feds Red Rock Pass Fee and Wins in Court

Not any more it’s not!
Red Rock Pass Fee Sign

An important decision has been handed down by Federal Magistrate Judge Mark Aspey in Flagstaff, Arizona. He granted a motion by Sedona resident Jim Smith to have his ticket for failure to pay a Forest Service recreation fee (i.e. have a Red Rock Pass) dismissed.

Jim parked overnight at the Vultee Arch Trailhead, a dirt parking lot with no amenities accessed by a rough dirt road. He backpacked into the Coconino National Forest, camped in an area with no amenities, and returned to find a ticket on his car because it did not display a Red Rock Pass.

The Red Rock Pass fee program is one of the most notorious in the nation, requiring an access fee for 160,000 acres of federal public land, much of it dispersed undeveloped backcountry.

Jim challenged the Forest Service’s authority to levy a fee at Vultee Arch Trailhead because the law governing recreation fees specifically prohibits fees for parking, general access, walking through federal land without using facilities and services, camping in dispersed undeveloped areas, or in any location that does not offer reasonable access to six specific amenities: permanent toilet, permanent trash container, picnic table, developed parking, interpretive signage, and security services. The Vultee Arch Trailhead offers none of these amenities – it only serves as a place to park and enter undeveloped backcountry, both of which are activities the law says must be free of charge. The nearest toilet is 7 miles away and the nearest trash can is 10 miles away.

Jim represented himself, and he was up against the full might of the federal government, but he won because he proved to the judge that the way the Forest Service is implementing fees in the Red Rock Pass area is not a reasonable interpretation of the law. In fact the decision describes the Forest Service’s interpretation as “absurd”:

“In addition to the plain language of the statute prohibiting the Forest Service from charging for parking or access or undeveloped camping, and the plain language of the statute prohibiting the Forest Service from charging an amenity fee at a site where specific amenities were not provided, Congressional intent and legislative history indicate that the Forest Service’s construction of the relevant statutory section would thwart Congressional intent and result in an absurd construction of the relevant statutory scheme.” [decision p. 29]
This is a very important decision, with national implications. There are almost 100 places around the country where the Forest Service has created “High Impact Recreation Areas” or HIRAs. Within a HIRA they have been claiming the authority to charge a fee for any activity at all as long as the six amenities exist somewhere in the HIRA, no matter how scattered or how far away. This interpretation has resulted in visitors being charged fees to access millions of acres of dispersed undeveloped backcountry.

Judge Aspey says nix to all that.

Among other things, this decision renders moot the signs in the Red Rock Pass area that say you have to buy a pass to park anywhere on the National Forest, and makes it unlikely that the Coconino – or any other National Forest – can ever again successfully prosecute someone for not having a pass at trailheads or dispersed camping areas.

You can read more about the case, including all the legal briefs and the judge’s decision, CLICK HERE .

Thank you!
Kitty Benzar, Western Slope No-Fee Coalition