An eight-year local experiment came to a close this week when the Sawtooth National Forest announced it has abolished trailhead parking fees.
The program's termination is the result of new federal legislation passed in December. The so-called Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act has changed the way public land managers collect recreation fees.
"We have scrutinized our existing recreation fee program on the forest and have determined that our trailhead parking pass program does not meet the intent of the new legislation or the agency's interim implementation guidelines," said Ruth Monahan, Sawtooth National Forest supervisor.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture coordinated the Thursday afternoon announcement nationwide, and fee programs throughout the country are being revised.
In order to charge a fee at day-use facilities such as trailheads, facilities must have substantial federal investments and meet all of the amenity requirements contained in the new act. Amenity requirements include designated developed parking, permanent toilet facilities, permanent trash receptacles, interpretive signs or exhibits, picnic tables and security services.
All of those amenities must be present in order for an agency to charge a fee. None of the trailheads in the existing program on the Sawtooth National Forest meet those requirements.
"These are the kinds of things the public expects to find when they come to these sites where fees are charged," said Sawtooth National Forest Spokesman Ed Waldapfel.
"The most significant change is that a fee will no longer be required at day use trailheads on the Ketchum Ranger District and Sawtooth National Recreation Area, which were part of the Trailhead Parking Pass Program ....", a Sawtooth press release states.
This is the second year in a row the local recreation fee program was revised. Last summer, the U.S. Forest Service established a "national blueprint" that required fee sites to contain significant improvements. The Sawtooth Forest scaled its program back from 38 trailheads to 17.
According to U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act raises the bar for sites to qualify for charging fees so that the public can enjoy more amenities at such places.
"Recreation on federal lands has grown tremendously over the past several years, and the rec-fee program has been a valuable tool for allowing forest managers to meet visitor demands for enhanced visitor facilities and services," Bosworth said.
Following a nationwide review of all fee sites, roughly 500 day-use sites such as trailheads and picnic areas are being removed from the program.
On the Sawtooth National Forest, overnight camping fees at 16 campgrounds will be retained.
The act also contains a provision whereby the Forest Service can retain special use fees from outfitters and guides permits and recreation event permits. Previously, those fees were deposited in the federal treasury.
The act also provides federal agencies the authority to establish new fees.
"However, this will only be done with public support and following the public involvement process outlines in the new legislation," according to a Sawtooth National Forest press release.
The federal fee program had rocky origins on the Sawtooth National Forest.
In 1997, following a number of public meetings, the forest began participating in the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program with a general user pass, which was required to access public land on the Ketchum Ranger District and Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
The forest changed the program the following year and enacted trailhead fees at 38 trailheads.
The original enabling legislation, as well as subsequent bills that have extended the program, was passed as a rider on an appropriations bill.
Since 1997, the Sawtooth National Forest has collected more than $700,200 in fees and directly invested them in areas where they were collected. New restrooms, trailheads, picnic tables and fire rings were installed. Trail maintenance and reconstruction projects were funded. New bridges were built, and staff were hired.
"The ability to establish and retain recreation fees has been a tremendous asset to the Sawtooth National Forest," Monahan said. "Without this ability, many new facilities would not have been built, our maintenance backlog would continue to increase and many projects would not have been accomplished."