"The Clear Creek Ranger District invites you to drive the highest road in North America!" says the U.S. Forest Service web page on Mount Evans. The drive offers views of "the Continental Divide, mountain goat and bighorn sheep herds, wildflowers and Bristlecone Pine trees." But stopping to look isn't free.
Three years ago, users filed suit against the Forest Service for charging a $10 "amenity fee" for anyone who parks -- even pulls over -- along the road winding up Mount Evans, even though the 2004 Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act prohibits the Forest Service and other agencies from charging entrance fees for Forest Service land, and only allows an amenity fee if visitors actually use amenities -- improved campgrounds, bathrooms, visitor centers. But at Mount Evans, the plaintiffs claimed, the Forest Service was not only charging the fee as cars started up the highway, but was not telling drivers that they did not have to pay the $10 if they kept moving.
"As long as you drive to the top and back without stopping, you don't need to pay," a Forest Service spokesman told me when I asked about this policy for a June 2010 column. What if you just pull over onto one of scenic overlooks? "As long as you drive to the top and back without stopping, you don't need to pay," he repeated. What if you pause at the side of the road to take a picture? "As long as you drive to the top and back without stopping, you don't need to pay."
And yesterday, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals backed up that interpretation, upholding a lower court's ruling that the Forest Service can charge the "amenity fee" for people driving up Mount Evans who may use amenities along the way -- including bathrooms, a nature center and, apparently, scenic overlooks. But Forest Service reps who operate the information center at the start of the Scenic Byway are still supposed to tell visitors that they don't have to pay the $10 fee -- if they don't ever stop on the drive.
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Here's the technical language from the 2004 federal law regarding such fees:
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The Secretary shall not charge any standard amenity fee for Federal recreation lands and waters administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, or the Bureau of Reclamation under this act for any of the following:
solely for parking, undesignated parking, or picnicking along roads or trailsides
for general access unless specifically authorized under this section
for dispersed areas with low or no investment unless specifically authorized under this section
for persons who are driving through, walking through, boating through, horseback riding through, or hiking through Federal recreational lands and waters without using the facilities and services.
For camping at undeveloped sites that do not provide a minimum number of facilities and services...
For use of overlooks or scenic pullouts.
At least this court ruling still allows you to enjoy the view. Just very quickly.
More from our Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "Pine-beetle-killed trees aren't a pretty sight no matter what Texans say."