WASHINGTON (CN) - Private companies can charge people for using the undeveloped public lands that the companies manage, a federal judge ruled.
Lead plaintiff BARK sued the U.S. Forest Service in 2012, claiming that its practice of allowing private concessionaires to charge fees to hikers and others violated federal law.
According to U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras' ruling, the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (REA) restricts the recreation fees the Forest Service and other federal agencies can charge visitors, but those restrictions don't extend to third party concessionaires.
"Under the REA, the Forest Service would not be permitted to charge a fee for an undeveloped campsite that provided only tent spaces, drinking water, toilet facilities, and refuse containers," the judge wrote. "But if a third party managed the same campsite, it would indeed be providing 'services' to visitors under any reasonable interpretation of the word."
The government may charge fees for public lands containing national conservation areas, national volcanic monuments or a visitor center, according to federal law. It also may charge fees if it has substantially invested in the land in the form of parking facilities, restrooms and trash receptacles.
BARK claimed that the Forest Service granted a special-use permit to a private company to charge for use of the Mount Hood National Forest, "including the 'Big Eddy' day-use area, where visitors have traditionally parked to swim in the Clackamas River free of charge."
"Under the new special use permit, the concessionaire now charges $5 per person to soak in Bagby Hot Springs, regardless of how they arrive."
Several park enthusiasts joined BARK, an Oregon-based nonprofit with 7,000 members, many of them living near the Mt. Hood National Forest, in its complaint.
They cited specific public sites - Rose Canyon Lake in Coronado National Forest, Walton Lake in Ochoco National Forest, Bagby Hot Springs of Mount Hood National Forest and others - and instances where they parked their cars and simply walked around the site without using any of the services, but were still charged a fee.
Contreras ruled that the fees do not violate federal laws and that the Forest Service did not violate the Administrative Procedure Act by granting the special-use permits.
"It is the Court's task to apply the law according to its plain meaning, and the REA clearly does not apply to concessioners who provide goods or services under permits issued pursuant to the Granger-Thye Act and its implementing regulations," the judge ruled, noting that trail cleanliness and maintenance is also a service.
The Granger-Thye Act authorizes the Forest Service to issue permits for grazing.