The decision - reached late last week - settles a lawsuit filed by users who argued that the Forest Service did not have the authority to charge visitors who were accessing public lands without using the Mount Evans summit viewing platform, the Mount Goliath interpretive area and the Denver-owned Summit Lake Park.
"The Forest Service can no longer get money from people who weren't using those services," said Durango's Western Environmental Law Center attorney Matt Kenna, who argued the Mount Evans fee case before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year and helped negotiate last week's settlement agreement.
The appeals court in August last year upheld a lower court ruling supporting the Forest Service's right to charge an "amenity fee," citing a technicality in the fee-challenge argument.
In February, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a similar blanket fee charged by the Forest Service to all visitors at Arizona's Mount Lemmon, ruling that the agency incorrectly interpreted the 2005 Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act.
The act, which allows "amenity fees" for "high impact" recreation areas, prohibits the Forest Service from charging visitors who are simply passing through those areas without using improved facilities such as parking lots and restrooms.
"The statute thus distinguishes between merely recreating in an area and actually using an area's amenities," reads the appellate court's decision. "By ignoring the plain text, the forest service arrives at an interpretation that would enable an end-run around the clear statutory restrictions."
The agency is planning to build a through-lane that bypasses the Mount Evans welcome station along Colorado 5 and will install small fee-collection stations at each of the three improved sites.
Read more of Jason Blevins' story in The Denver Post
(Copyright 2012 The Denver Post)