By now you’ve probably heard about the lawsuit in Arizona, in the Coronado National Forest, between the U.S. Forest Service and a group of recreational users.
The basic premise is that national forests belong to the people of the United States, and as such, the people should not be charged fees to park and recreate there. These fees, in the form of the Adventure Pass, might prevent some low-income people from visiting the forest, and thus it is, they argue, a form of double taxation.
We pay for the forest and services with our tax dollars. The Department of Agriculture then gives a percentage of our taxes to the Forest Service to manage said forest. The Adventure Pass is sold for $30 for an annual pass, and $5 for a day pass.
Part of the problem is dwindling federal tax dollars. When the Department of Agriculture loses revenue, the forests lose revenue. It’s that simple. Monetary cutbacks to our forests cause multiple, highly visible problems. Staff is limited, existing trails cannot be maintained, no new trails can be cut, fire suppression becomes more difficult (if not impossible), visitors centers are closed and bathrooms might not be maintained to the standards a visitor would wish. Even things such as volunteer programs could be impacted or completely nonexistent.
In the Angeles National Forest, the Forest Service collected $1.2 million in fees in 2011. These fees were used for maintenance and repairs, visitor services, and the cost of collection. Without the Adventure Pass fees, which I feel are negligible, I can only imagine how poorly the forest will fare.
The Adventure Pass program has been in effect for 16 years. The case in the Coronado Forest limited the Adventure Pass to areas with certain amenities such as bathrooms at trailheads and parking lots, all of which were to be maintained by the Forest Service. This current ruling applies to all Western states, but there is hope that the ruling will be applied nationwide.
The Angeles National Forest is determining how it will respond to this action. Currently, officials are suggesting that free-of-charge zones be created, which might include Elizabeth Lake, Frenchman’s Flat, Front Country, Little Rock, Mount Baldy, San Gabriel Canyon, Hoegees Trail Camp, Angeles Crest, Big Pines-Big Rock, Rowher-Drinkwater, and Big Tujunga. Other areas will still require an Adventure Pass to be displayed.
For me, this is a tough call. I agree with both sides. As a citizen of the United States, I own that forest, and I should be able to visit it without paying. I already pay piles of taxes for that privilege, and I expect it to be well maintained, spotless, with good trails for recreation, newly planted trees to replace the old, and fresh, clean, flowing water from every creek and river.
But what if there are not enough funds? What if the forest becomes a dirty, filthy swamp because there is no money to attend to its needs? No trash pickup, no volunteer groups because there is no funding for forest oversight … no clean toilets, no graffiti removal, no security. I see the possibility of the forest quickly becoming a disaster.
I appreciate everything the rangers do in the forest. I appreciate every single volunteer. I think the money paid to the Forest Service should be increased so services to the public can be increased. But if the funding is not there, the solutions are limited.
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One solution would be to increase fees for every visitor, not eliminate them. That would go over like a lead balloon with the people using the forest. It might also deny the less fortunate among us from ever seeing the beauty of our forest.
A better option in my mind is to support the San Gabriel Mountains Forever Campaign, which is trying to turn the San Gabriel Mountains into a National Recreation Area. This action alone would not change any of the current uses within the forest. It would not affect anyone’s water rights. It would not change the management of the National Forest.
What it would do would be to bring in the National Park Service as a partner with the Angeles National Forest. It would bring roving rangers for security and visitor education. It would bring more volunteer groups, maintenance, new trails, and connectivity from Santa Clarita all the way to Cucamonga.
It would improve the air and water quality, animal migrations, and protect more endangered species (plant and animal) than the Forest Service has been able to do alone. It would also protect sensitive Native American sites that have been largely neglected.
Did you know Santa Clarita is the second largest city to butt up against the forest boundary? And yet we have not one trail that goes into the forest. To visit the forest on a sanctioned trail, we have to drive 1.5 hours to get there.
We need equal access to the forest. Currently we have none.
I am working on making this dream of the San Gabriel Mountains National Recreation Area a reality for all of us. If you’d like to help, let me know. I’m looking for business and individual supporters. You can contact me via the Internet at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It won’t cost you anything at all, but it will give you equal access, it will bring services and businesses to Santa Clarita, and it will mean more multi-use trails for everyone. It will bring jobs to Santa Clarita, and lots of local opportunities for recreation.
Thus far I have 33 businesses in Santa Clarita that support the National Recreation Area, and thousands of individuals. It’s a good idea. It’s a sustainable idea, and it won’t cost you.
The choice is yours, really. You can send me a letter of support for the National Recreation Area at the email address above, sign a petition, or just tell me you want your business listed as a supporter.
If you want your voice be heard on the issue of the Adventure Pass, you can send an email to Tamara Wilton at email@example.com. There might be public meetings on the subject in January. I will keep you informed.
Remember, the forest is yours. Its fate is in your hands.
Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is executive director of the Community Hiking Club and president of the Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy.