DENVER (AP) – A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday the U.S. Forest Service can keep charging a $10 fee to drive the nation’s highest paved road on a peak west of Denver.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling that the Forest Service can charge the “amenity fee” to visitors who flock to the 14,264-foot Mount Evans. The paved road takes visitors less than three dozen feet from the summit, making it the easiest hike to one of Colorado’s “fourteeners,” or mountains above 14,000 feet.
Mount Evans is part of the Arapahoe and Roosevelt National Forests, and Congress has decreed that anyone may enter a national forest without charge. However, the three-judge panel unanimously concluded that the Forest Service can charge a fee at Mount Evans because some use amenities including a nature center.
“By everyone’s admission, the Service provides various amenities and services for which a fee may lawfully be charged,” Judge Neil Gorsuch wrote for the court.
But the ruling also gave what fee opponents see as a possible opening. The outdoor enthusiasts who brought the lawsuit should have challenged the fees on a personal level, the court said, instead of challenging the fee for everybody, the ruling said.
“We hardly mean to suggest that the Service’s policy can’t be attacked at all. It might well be susceptible to a winning challenge” if the plaintiffs had framed their challenge differently, the court wrote.
“It’s a mixed bag. It certainly doesn’t give the Forest Service a blank check,” said Kitty Benzar, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, a group that supported the lawsuit but wasn’t a plaintiff.
The court pointed out that plaintiffs want to waive fees for all, even people who use amenities.
“If a visitor drives close enough to Mount Evans, parks to have a picnic one the side of the road, and then calls it a day, she’ll have paid the amenity fee only for picnicking and undesignated parking — activities for which no fee us supposed to be charged,” Gorsuch wrote. “But if that same visitor lingers a bit longer and stops by the nature center, she’ll have paid a fee that the (law) expressly allows the Service to charge.”
A spokesman for the Forest Service did not immediately return a call for comment Tuesday.
Mount Evans is about 40 miles west of Denver, making it the city’s closest “fourteener” and a popular sightseeing trip in the short summer season when the road is open. Mount Evans is visible from about 100 miles to the east.
– By Kristen Wyatt, AP Writer
LINK: Mount Evans Scenic Byway
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)