If not at Maroon Bells, Then Where? Or Predicting Poopy Trailheads


Are these people going to use a bathroom? Who is going to ask them?
Are these people going to use a bathroom? Who is going to ask them?

As I go about my outdoor recreation, I go to Jefferson County Open Space (free bathrooms). when it gets warmer I go up to the local State Park ($7 per day or Park Pass for $70 a year). When it gets hotter, I may have to go to Brainerd Lake (host program, mildly ratty,pay to enter the site on National Forest) or to Rocky Mountain National Park (first class, good bathrooms but no dogs).

I’ve been to the Bells many times with out of town guests. Like Mt. Evans, I’ve never heard “we shouldn’t pay ” from folks. Both places have a nice (not second-class recreation) feel to them. I bet many folks (social scientists, want to do a survey?) don’t even know they’re in a National Forest and not a National Park.

And if it was a National Park, we would probably pay more, but not be able to take our dogs..less desirable on both counts.

But this bathroom stuff is quite silly, in my opinion. See this article from the Aspen Times

Benzar and the Forest Service have different interpretations about the application of the fee at Maroon Lake, 10 miles southwest of Aspen. The No-Fee Coalition contends that those who want to hike Buckskin Pass or West Maroon Pass and want to park a vehicle at Maroon Lake shouldn’t have to pay the $10 fee if they have no intention of hitting the bathroom before they hit the trail. Likewise, sightseers in cars shouldn’t have to pay the fee if they don’t use the bathroom or other facilities at any of the six developed recreation sites, she said.

Here’s the deal to me..yes, folks could install “pay to poop” card readers at the outhouses, but that contributes to the Forest Service “ratty second-class recreation” vibe. Not to speak of all the folks who won’t pay $10 and leave the nearby forest looking and smelling like a giant outhouse (not to speak of the ecosystem integrity when all that extra nitrogen is applied!)

Which is part of the reason people want to transfer FS land to the Park Service- because somehow the Parkies appear to not allow rattiness. It seems like that is the obvious trail we’re going down, any area with lots of folks gets transferred because then there can be money to take care of them. Try “I am just driving through and not using Park facilities” at a National Park.

Since we’re all about following the law, and the recreation fee legislation is up before Congress, let’s see how many different ideas there are about alterations to the legislation to make it more common-sensical.

Here are some other excerpts from the story:

Officials at the Aspen Ranger District and the White River National Forest Supervisor’s Office have countered over the years that collecting the fee is vital to operating the necessary facilities at Maroon Lake. Without the fee, the Maroon Bells would soak up all the recreation funds available through the regular budget process. Instead, funds collected don’t go back to the treasury. They are used at Maroon Bells for operations and maintenance.

The Forest Service and the predecessor to the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority started bus service to the Maroon Bells 35 years ago. The federal agency also worked with Pitkin County to limit traffic on Maroon Creek Road, a county route. When the fee was adopted formally through federal legislation, cyclists fought the Forest Service for an exemption. Bikes and pedestrians get free passage past the entrance station.

The federal agency’s total collection from Maroon Valley visitors was $231,364 last year. That is a 50 percent increase from the collections in 2008, according to Forest Service figures.

Without the fee, Maroon Creek Road would be overwhelmed with traffic and the agency wouldn’t have adequate funds for operations, officials have said.

“Having that fee collection keeps it world-class,” said Martha Moran, a longtime veteran of the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District who helps oversee recreation programs. “If you want trash picked up and toilets cleaned, you can’t use volunteers.”

Maybe with the current legislation, this recreation is “unsustainable” based on the planning directives definition of within budget. I wonder what Aspen folks would think of the FS shutting it down when their plan is revised?

6 thoughts on “If not at Maroon Bells, Then Where? Or Predicting Poopy Trailheads”

  1. Sharon,
    To whatever extent the article give the impression that I am in favor of poopy trailheads or pay toilets, I hope you will grant me the benefit of the doubt and understand that not every press story gets everything right. What I told the reporter is that if the FS wants to charge for toilet use that would be legal because Congress in their infinite wisdom has authorized it. Not required it; authorized it.

    I then added that it would also be a stupid management decision. He left out that part.

    Before Fee Demo, the law (LWCFA) specifically prohibited charging fees for use of toilets, drinking water, or picnic tables. With Fee Demo that was lifted and the FS could and did start charging for all of those things. When FLREA replaced Fee Demo its authors tried to limit fees to use of developed recreation facilities. That meant they had to define “developed.” On the list of things that qualify is “permanent toilet.” Not by itself, but in combination with five other things (picnic tables, trash receptacles, developed parking, interpretive exhibits, and security services).

    They also said that if someone does not use any of those facilities and services but merely passes through federal land en route to undeveloped territory beyond, they don’t have to pay for them.

    (Actually, they have already paid for general access to undeveloped recreation on public lands – it’s called taxes. And taxes should be levied only by elected bodies, not imposed by District Rangers to fill a perceived budget shortfall.)

    The FS has argued for years that if they provide all six of the amenities they can charge for parking anywhere within the area where they are located, with “area” being as large as they want it to be. (At Maroon Valley, it’s almost 2,000 acres.) They have ignored the prohibition on fees for merely passing through. As a result people have been and still are being required to pay a fee to leave a vehicle at a backcountry trailhead while they are engaged in recreation that does not require any amenities and that takes place far away from where they are located. That’s not legal, and that’s why they keep getting sued.

    The list of things that the White River can legally charge for at Maroon Valley is substantial: camping in developed campgrounds, picnicking in developed picnic areas, transportation services (the bus), interpretive programs. These are the things that most visitors are doing, and so if they only charged for these things their revenue would hardly budge.

    My dog in this fight is the wilderness hiker who only wants to sling on a pack and hike off into the mountains. If he stops to take a leak before hitting the trail, do we really want him to have to pay $10 to use a toilet? If the FS wants to become toilet police and impose rules like that then poopy trailheads is what they are going to get and what they will deserve.

    And once my theoretical hiker is “out there,” should he be paying $10 a day to park his empty car near a toilet that is miles away, while he is pooping in a cathole of his own excavation?

    A little common sense and thinking outside the box, instead of a rush to fees for every problem, would go a long way.

    • Hi Kitty: I grew up at a time when the USFS, Army Corps of Engineers, and the State Park Service all maintained a number of wonderful parks and facilities at zero (or very little) cost to users. Often, even firewood was provided for free. My family, along with thousands of others, often camped in these locations during the summer, and sometimes in the fall during fishing and hunting trips. What a wonderful experience, and what pleasant memories!

      In the late 1960s, use patterns began to change and many of these campgrounds became filled on the weekends. Campers had to begin sending a family member out on Thursday, in order to secure a camping spot through the weekend. Then reservations, then small fees.

      These public amenities were typically funded from timber and energy monies, not taxes or fees. Some timber companies, including Weyerhaeuser and Hull Lumber Co., even maintained their own campgrounds — and at no cost to users.

      In the late 1980s and early 1990s I attended Forest Recreation classes at Oregon, where the big issue had become recreational user fees in order to replace foregone timber revenues and to help fund increased costs of catering to a growing public — one now more likely to own a mountain bike and a backpack that a station wagon and canvas tent. The issues raised then (20 years ago) are the same as being discussed by you and Sharon today.

      These are still new concepts on federal lands, and continuing to experience growing pains. I’m going to be accused of being nostalgic or having a selective memory, but I think the old methods were much better. If we can return to active management of our public resources before being forced by circumstances to do so, then we should once again be able to provide world-class recreational opportunities to our citizens at little or no cost.

      PS I think that the solitary hiker that has left his vehicle at a parking spot is tempting vandalism. Fortunately, many of these locations are regularly patrolled and maintained by others. He or she is using a parking spot, and should pay for it — just like they would with a parking meter or commercial storage facility. There might be generally low maintenance costs to designated Wilderness areas, but they don’t generate any tax revenues for the counties and states in which they are located, either. Add in wildfire, access roads and trails, and actual number of users during a year and you come up with an incredibly expensive recreational experience for the lone hiker. Or any Wilderness user.

      • Thank you Bob for those thoughtful observations. I was with you right up until you equated parking at a trailhead with a parking meter in a city and characterized it as an invitation to vandalism. Perhaps you don’t do a lot of multi-day backcountry trips (nothing wrong with that) but those of us who do leave our vehicles at trailheads all the time. We don’t expect any guarantee against vandalism, and are not willing to pay a parking fee on the off chance that a ranger might happen along just at the right moment to catch a criminal in the act. If that is the justification then there should be a guard 24/7 and we should be able to sue the FS for negligence if we come back to a vandalized vehicle. In fact the only “vandalism” I’ve ever experienced at a trailhead in 50+ years of backpack trips was when a marmot ate through my water hose.

        • Kitty: You are a lucky person! I have been familiar with a fair amount of vandalism that has taken place in remote parking locations near Wilderness areas through the years, including breaking, entering, and theft. Some of it has been blamed on illicit growing operations or meth manufacturing in the past, and they really do seem to be isolated instances that stick out by being so unusual. But they are documented and even make the local news from time to time.

          My main point, though, is that Wilderness users cost the rest of us citizens a significant amount of dollars in providing millions of untaxed acres, access roads, hiking trails, wildfire management and — yes — law enforcement to create and maintain these areas. Vehicles are expensive to use and to maintain, too — including parking costs.

          Bottom line is I don’t think there should be any charges at all for the recreational use of federal lands — but if there are, then Wilderness users shouldn’t be exempt. Who wants to go to the woods and see a bunch of parked cars?

    • Kitty, I didn’t intend to pick on you.. here is how I see it.

      We need a policy for all federal lands recreation. Moving from one federal bunch to another is not a policy, it’s bizarre.

      So first I would move the FS to the Interior. Then I would set up a “federal lands recreation” FACA committee and a staff to harmonize regulations and approaches among agencies where it makes sense (like adjoining BLM and FS). The FS would have to give up its “every District is a fiefdom” (I can see my former RF cringing now…) with regards to some aspects of recreation.. but the public would get some consistency and coherence.

      A patchwork is artistic, but not particularly effective, and ratty campgrounds and people being locked out (as per “sustainable rec”) seems like the inevitable result. Federal recreation is way too important and costly to be managed as an ad hoc-racy.

      So I think you and I agree that there is a need for the big picture look…and really that that’s the only way to manage federal recreation. IMHO.

      • Moving the FS to DOI has been suggested for a long time. GAO studied the idea in 2009, you can read their observations at gao.gov in report number GAO-09-223. They identified both pros and cons. It would be up to Congress to do it, and Congress is showing precious little interest in public lands these days at all, never mind taking on such a monumental change.

        I agree that more consistency would be desirable. I would start by requiring private concessionaires to abide by the same laws and policies that the federal agencies have to. Right now they are allowed to bypass all public participation, charge for things the agencies are prohibited from charging for, and refuse to accept federal passes that the agencies are required to honor. The choice to use private management can sometimes be a valid choice, but it’s for the benefit of the agency and should be transparent to the visitor. The use of concessionaires is the biggest policy-patchwork creator on the National Forests. It amounts to an abdication of responsibility by the local FS officials. IMHO.


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