A federal lawsuit brought by four hikers could bring an end to a 16-year-old controversial fee program that rakes in millions of dollars for new picnic tables and routine maintenance within the four heavily used forests rimming Southern California.

At the order of U.S. District Court Judge Terry J. Hatter, lawyers for the plaintiffs and the Department of Justice are locked in settlement talks that could determine the outcome of the U.S. Forest Service's Adventure Pass, a fee that has elicited objections as "double taxation" from opponents but has been defended by forest managers as essential in this time of budgetary cutbacks.

The hikers want the court to apply a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling from February 2012 out of Arizona to the Angeles, Los Padres, San Bernardino and Cleveland national forests. In Adams v. U.S. Forest Service, the court ruled the Forest Service cannot charge for hiking, walking, picnicking, parking or visiting undeveloped areas of national forest land.

Apparently, the Forest Service applied the ruling only to the area in question, the Mount Lemmon Recreation Area within the Coronado National Forest, just north of Tucson, Arizona. As part of the settlement, the Forest Service agreed to lift the fees on 99 percent of the area, according to a settlement agreement from January 2013 obtained by this newspaper.


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Activists groups, and the four hikers, said the weight of the 9th Circuit ruling should apply to all national forests charging fees under the federal Recreation Enhancement Act in what are called High Impact Recreation Areas (HIRA). When the Forest Service continued to enforce its Adventure Pass requirement in the 657,000-square-mile Angeles Forest, the activists got angry and said the agency was thumbing its nose at the court, which has jurisdiction in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Alaska, Hawaii and California.

So they filed another lawsuit in October in federal court in Los Angeles.

"We are trying to get the court to hold that the scheme they have for their Adventure Pass is illegal," said the plaintiffs' attorney, Matt Kenna. "The Federal Land Recreation Enhancement Act clearly states you cannot charge someone who just wants to go hiking. "

The 9th Circuit Court issued a strongly worded ruling, saying the Forest Service could not charge people unless there was proof they were using certain amenities, such as developed picnic areas and permanent bathrooms. However, in the Angeles and the other Southern California forests, the Forest Service posts signs saying "fee required" at the entrance to the forests and at trailheads, seemingly in violation of the federal law.

The U.S. Forest Service's Angeles Headquarters in Arcadia would not discuss the case, saying it does not comment on ongoing litigation. However, a 2011 report from the Forest Service listed revenues from "recreation fees" in the Angeles at $1.2 million. The report lists all sorts of projects that benefitted from Adventure Pass funds, from new trees at Charlton Flat above Arcadia to replacement of burned-out picnic tables from the 2009 Station Fire at Red Box located off Angeles Crest Highway near the Mount Wilson Observatory.

One of the plaintiffs, Alasdair Coyne, 48, of Ojai, said the Forest Service uses at least 15 percent for administrative costs. "Basically, people in these fee areas have not noticed a great deal of difference on the ground," he said. "The correct answer is to make sure the agency is properly funded,"

The Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, based in Colorado, has been supporting the plaintiffs. They celebrated 15 months ago after the Adams ruling, all but saying the Adventure Pass in America was dead.

"But the Forest Service said that only applied to Mt. Lemmon but that isn't true. The same issues are present with the Adventure Pass in Southern California," said Kitty Benzar, president of the Coalition.

She said it's wrong for one federal agency to ignore the ruling of federal appeals court Judge Robert Gettleman or to treat each of the 96 HIRAs throughout the United States separately. "I don't think we have to bring a lawsuit to each and every one of them. The judge's ruling was clear. It should apply nationwide. "

Plaintiff Peter Wiechers, 56, of Kernville, said he became angry when, after launching his kayak in the Kern River, he received a "Notice of a Required Fee" on his car windshield. That was in July, six months after the 9th Circuit Court ruled that using the natural areas of a national forest should be free of charge.

"I guess I feel that my taxes are paying for the land and it is federal land. I'm not using a facility," Wiechers said Tuesday.

He often takes Angeles Forest Highway through the Angeles National Forest on his way to Pasadena to see his UCLA Bruins play football in the Rose Bowl. On his way, he would stop and get out and walk his dog. But he does so in fear of getting a citation for not having a $5 daily or $30 monthly Adventure Pass. A citation carries a $100 fine. Other times, he takes Big Tujunga Canyon through Sun Valley and notices signs requiring an Adventure Pass.

"Since the Adams decision, they are completely flaunting the law. They still have the signs up," Wiechers said. "I work at a boys probation camp where we enforce the rules. The federal agency should be as responsible as a 16-year-old juvenile delinquent. "