Victory rings hollow in fee demo court ruling 

Opponents of the USDA Forest Service’s fee demo program won a court victory in Oregon this month. Sort of.

A federal judge ruled that the Forest Service exceeded its authority when it charged user fees at more than 1,000 recreation sites in the Northwest. Congress had set the cap at 100 sites nationwide.

U.S. Magistrate Thomas Coffin ruled Dec. 6 that the Forest Service had wrongly lumped together 1,349 trailheads and other recreation areas in the Northwest as one fee demo site requiring an annual or day pass, rather than as individual sites as Congress had intended.

But the ruling is moot, however, because Congress voted in November to lift the 100-site cap imposed in the original 1996 bill. Congress also extended the program for another two years.

The case challenging the fee demo program was brought by Leeanne Siart, an Oregon biologist who was cited last June for being on the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area without a Northwest Forest Pass.

The ruling isn’t expected to have much, if any, impact on Montana forests. But the congressional decision to eliminate the cap on the number of sites where the Forest Service can impose fees may be felt here in the form of new user-fee sites.

Terry Knupp, Region One fee demo project coordinator in Missoula, says the Forest Service has always interpreted the fee demo law to mean that one fee demo project could encompass numerous sites. For instance, there are 30 rental cabins in Region One, all of which have overnight rental fees attached, and all of which are lumped together as a single fee demo project.

Knupp, who handles requests from forests in the region to add sites to the fee demo list, says that no decisions will be made about adding new sites to the user-fee list for at least a month, but she anticipates new fee demo sites will be added.

On the Bitterroot National Forest, Lake Como and about a half-dozen campgrounds in the Sula Ranger District will probably remain the only fee demo sites. Project coordinator Mary Laws says no new fee demo sites are proposed on the Bitterroot National Forest.

Knupp says the judge ruled that the Forest Service has a right to charge fees at parking areas, assuming that the person using the national forest is recreating, not working or practicing religion. People who do work or practice religion at fee demo sites may seek a waiver from the district ranger, since they are protected by the First Amendment right to free worship.

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