Angeles Crest Highway in Angeles National Forest

Avid hiker Scott Groves of Pasadena walks Angeles Crest Highway, just west of Angeles Forest Highway, north of La Cañada Flintridge on Thursday, July 8, 2010. Groves began his hike in Sierra Madre and walked to La Cañada Flintridge through Mount Wilson. (Raul Roa / Staff Photographer / July 8, 2010)

Hikers who visit the Angeles Forest without using park amenities, such as restrooms and picnic areas, no longer have to pay to park, according to a recent court ruling.

On April 28, U.S. District Court Judge Terry Hatter Jr. ruled the U.S. Forest Service cannot charge fees to visitors who park and hike into its forests, including the Angeles and San Bernardino national forests. The decision declares the long-held tradition of requiring all visitors to purchase Adventure Passes illegal.

For years, visitors to the Angeles Forest have been charged a recreation fee for visiting parks, whether they are using the park's services and amenities or simply parking for a hike. A one-day Adventure Pass costs visitors $5, while an annual pass costs $30. So far this year sales of the passes have totaled $891,915, with a portion of that amount going to vendors.

Failure to purchase a pass allows the Forest Service to impose misdemeanor criminal charges, the ruling states. Hikers and park advocates, like La Cañada resident Trent Sanders, call the practice of charging indiscriminately unethical and unnecessary.

"Nobody complained about the fees being charged at a legitimate site; I don't have a problem with that at all," Sanders said. "I did have a problem when they charged a blanket fee for the whole area."

Sanders has hiked the Angeles Forest for six decades, and once worked for the Forest Service as a crewman on a tanker in charge of fire control. At that time, he said, crews maintained trails and recreation areas during their down time.

But today's fire engine crews are no longer responsible for park upkeep, requiring the Forest Service to hire employees to patrol and care for public areas. While this seems a justification to charge all visitors a recreation fee, Sanders claims the millions being collected is not necessarily well spent.

"They say they don't have the money to maintain (parks), but that's not true," Sanders added, citing an incident in which park officials purchased a new fleet of patrol vehicles and claimed it came from the general fund.

John Heil, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said Monday that while the agency cannot comment on pending litigation, officials were in the preliminary stages of determining what Hatter's ruling will mean for day-to-day park management.

"The Forest Service is evaluating the court's decision and assessing the next steps to take," he said in a statement. "In the four Southern California forests, visitors parked in a designated fee site should display a valid Adventure Pass if they use any of the site's other amenities."

It's still unclear how park employees will determine which visitors are using amenities and which aren't. In an April 30 L.A. Times interview, attorney Matt Kenna, who represented the hiker plaintiffs in Hatter's case, suggested rangers could make separate parking areas, create roadside parking near trailheads or stop assessing fees at sites with limited facilities.

"What they can't do is just assume that anyone who is parked at a trailhead is using the facilities," Kenna said.

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Follow Sara Cardine on Twitter: @SaraCardine.

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