Aspen man’s lawsuit challenges Maroon Bells fee for wilderness users

A Forest Service representative converses with a visitor to Maroon Valley last summer. Visitors must catch the bus during daytime or pay a fee when the bus isn't running. The fee is under scrutiny for some circumstances.
Aspen Times file photo |

An Aspen man who feels the U.S. Forest Service has unlawfully charged him a fee to enter Maroon Valley when he wants to recreate in the wilderness is making a federal case out of it.

Thomas Alpern filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Denver on Tuesday trying to repeal one aspect of the user-fee program at the Maroon Bells Scenic Area.

Alpern’s lawsuit contends that if he isn’t using the developed facilities or services at Maroon Lake, he shouldn’t be charged the $10 fee. The lawsuit says he occasionally drives into Maroon Valley in his own vehicle before the welcome station opens at 9 a.m. He parks at the East or West Maroon Wilderness Portal for a hiking or backpacking trip. Visitors are supposed to voluntary leave their fee when the welcome station isn’t staffed.

“He has paid under protest to enter the Maroon Valley to engage in these activities,” the lawsuit says.

“There’s a level where that (fee) becomes like buying an e-ticket to Disney to take a walk in the woods.” — Tom Alpern

Not targeting bus system

Alpern filed the lawsuit after getting advice and help with legal representation from the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, an organization based in Durango that challenges the federal government’s application of some fees to use public lands. It successfully challenged the fee for some visitors to Mount Evans on Colorado’s Front Range. It also has challenged application of fees in forests in California.

Kitty Benzar, president of the coalition, stressed that the lawsuit doesn’t challenge the right of the Forest Service and Pitkin County to limit private vehicles and require use of a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus during the heart of the day in summers and falls.

Alpern isn’t challenging the right of the Forest Service to apply a fee to Maroon Lake visitors who use the bathrooms, talk to rangers, use picnic facilities and look at the interpretative displays while sightseeing.

The coalition and Alpern object to the Forest Service applying the fee to wilderness visitors who must enter via a trailhead at the Maroon Bells Scenic Area.

“It’s an important distinction,” Benzar said.

She said the Missoula, Montana, attorneys who filed the lawsuit on Alpern’s behalf took the case pro bono.

Because the lawsuit was filed Tuesday it hadn’t been seen yet by White River National Forest officials. The supervisor’s office declined comment. In the past, Forest Service officials have said they believe the application of the fee is lawful. In addition, they said creating a system where people wouldn’t be charged the fee if they said they wouldn’t use facilities would be unenforceable.

The fee raises roughly $180,000 annually. The revenue is plowed back into the Maroon Lake facilities.

“Ticket to Disney”

Alpern grew up in Aspen, moved away for a while, then returned years ago and is raising his own family in town. He noted he lived in Aspen prior to the implementation of the fee.

“It used to be OK to go up there and breathe fresh air,” he said. People who visit the woods tend to be “woodsy” and don’t want the amenities provided at Maroon Lake, he said.

But those wilderness users are being penalized when the Forest Service applies the fee to all.

Alpern said he is sometimes hauling gear for longer outings or hauling passengers and a dog for hikes into the wilderness beyond the Maroon Lake gateway. In those situations, it isn’t feasible to use the bus because of timing or logistics, he said.

Alpern said he questioned the propriety of the fee for years, then learned of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition. He contacted Benzar and learned there are legal questions about the application of the fee to people like him. He agreed to file the lawsuit.

“There’s a level where that (fee) becomes like buying an e-ticket to Disney to take a walk in the woods,” Alpern said.

The lawsuit asks a judge to rule that the fee violates the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act when a visitor doesn’t use the developed facilities at the Maroon Bells High Scenic Area, and that it cannot be charged any longer.

Alpern also is seeking a refund of the fees he has paid in the past and an award for his costs of the litigation.