Fee kiosk on Paradise Road | Credit: Courtesy

One factor has been consistent throughout the first five-year operation by the Parks Management Company of Los Padres National Forest’s fee kiosk on Paradise Road: The company has been charging fees illegally to forest visitors who are planning to park outside the developed recreation facilities beyond the kiosk. This must cease.

The operation of this fee kiosk by the Parks Management Company, including the signage on the kiosk, have been on Los Padres National Forest’s quarterly stakeholders’ meeting agenda for several years now, yet no progress has been made by forest administrators toward securing the public’s right to free access to the many miles of roads outside of the developed recreation sites, including numerous popular swimming spots and trailheads, as the law requires.

Alasdair Coyne

The focus of our attention for most of the five years during which we have critiqued the levying of these illegal fees has been on the proper training of the Parks Management Company’s kiosk staff, and on the posting of signage in a prominent location on the kiosk wall, to inform the public that no fees are required for parking outside of the developed recreation sites.

At the most recent Los Padres forest stakeholders’ meeting on February 28, it became crystal clear that the company has no intention of following the law at its Paradise Road fee kiosk. Parks Management Company CEO Nathan Koontz, when asked whether his kiosk staff ask the drivers who stop at the kiosk where they are headed, stated that it was none of the company’s business where visitors are headed, past the kiosk.

This is exactly the opposite of the truth.  It is the core principle of Parks Management Company’s concessionaire business to solicit this basic information from every driver. If drivers are headed to a developed recreation site, they must pay the fee; if headed elsewhere, no fee is allowed.

Parks Management Company’s concessionaire permit clearly states, under Fees Charged to the Public, “PMC may not charge for any of the following:
Solely for parking, undesignated parking, or picnicking along roads or trail sides.
General access, unless specifically authorized by (FL)REA.
Dispersed areas with little or no investment, unless specifically authorized by (FL)REA.” (The FLREA is the federal fee law governing fee access to federal public lands.)

Perhaps the most astonishing element of Koontz’s statement was that he had no hesitation whatsoever in stating that his kiosk staff do not ask each driver’s destination, which question is vital to the levying of a fee or not, at a public meeting attended by top forest administrators and two staff representatives of California’s federal legislators.

It would seem that Parks Management Company’s ongoing collection of illegal fee moneys from the American public occurs with impunity from any corrective actions by Los Padres forest administrators, who are themselves required to follow the same federal law, the FLREA.

There was a brief window in November 2021 when we discussed the fee kiosk issue with then Acting LPNF Supervisor Chris Stubbs; it seemed like progress might occur. He had himself verified that the kiosk staff simply request the $10 fee without inquiring as to the driver’s destination when he drove up there with his wife on a weekend morning.

He brought up with me the possible closing of the fee kiosk, which would require Parks Management Company to rely on the sturdy metal fee pillars where drivers deposit their fee envelopes at developed sites. This is the model of operations at many of the company’s concessionaire campgrounds and is followed up by company staff driving by to ensure that fee receipt slips are present on vehicles’ dashboards.

We also discussed adding the clear wordng on drivers’ fee receipts that no fee is needed for parking at undeveloped sites. And further, that Los Padres should see that better training of kiosk staff occurs, to ensure compliance with the FLREA fee law on where fees may and may not be levied. Chris Stubbs also mentioned that although the concessionaire permit was last fall up for imminent renewal, this fact did not in any way preclude future amendments to the concessionaire permit at any point in time.

Unfortunately, it seems that none of these possible improvements have been initiated. At the forest’s February stakeholders’ meeting, Recreation Officer Michael Papa stated that the proposal to close the Paradise Road fee kiosk was not going to happen, as that would “involve too complex a change to PMC’s permit.” One must wonder what level of complexity is too great, in order to protect the forest recreating public from the levying of illegal fees by the Parks Management Company?

It is hard to imagine any other public meeting venue, such as a city council or a board of supervisors meeting, where the confession of illegal financial gains by a permitted concessionaire would not be swiftly followed by an investigation by the appropriate authorities. By continuing to take no action to address these matters, Los Padres National Forest is clearly condoning them.

Then there is the matter of signage on the fee kiosk itself. We asked over a period of several years that it be clearly stated on the kiosk that no fees are required for roadside parking outside of developed sites.

Recently retired Santa Barbara District ranger Pancho Smith stated at a stakeholder meeting a few years ago that he was continually frustrated at dealing with Parks Management Company on the signage question. Eventually a National Forest sign was posted by the district ranger on the fee kiosk in a location clearly visible to drivers, in the summer of 2020.

That sign is reproduced here.

This was a good first step toward the public having the opportunity to be informed of the law, although most drivers’ eyes are on the kiosk staffer they are handing their money to, rather than perusing all of the kiosk signage.

And then it wasn’t an improvement anymore. The sign was removed early in 2021, and Parks Management Company stated that in rearranging their kiosk signage that the National Forest fee sign had been misplaced. A further number of months passed in the busy season of 2021, during which no information was available on the kiosk to inform the visiting public of their rights to fee-free access to undeveloped sites.

And then at the February stakeholders’ meeting, Nathan Koontz stated that this sign was now taken down again, while Parks Management Company is securing “permanent signage” for the kiosk.

It is unclear what wording the company will come up with, or whether or not the information about fee-free areas will be readily visible to a driver stopped at the kiosk. Los Padres National Forest must insist that their own sign be re-posted on the kiosk immediately. Parks Management Company had no authority to remove it.

PMC staff have also ticketed vehicles parked in legal no-fee areas beyond the kiosk — with the ticket envelope asking for money to be mailed to the company. It is hard to imagine that these other ongoing illegal fee collection activities have been conducted without any knowledge of the Parks Management Company’s administrators.

We respectfully request that Los Padres National Forest amend the Parks Management Company concessionaire permit immediately, and to require that all drivers stopping at the kiosk are clearly asked by the kiosk staff whether or not they are headed to a developed recreation site, before a request is made for the $10 fee.

Los Padres must immediately re-post their own no-fee kiosk sign, and any new Parks Management Company signage must be approved by the forest as to its clarity on where fees are not required, and as to its location being clearly visible to drivers.

The currently absent National Forest fee signage is superior in its clear and simple wording, in its white background against a dark wall, and in its use of the U. S. Forest Service’s logo.

Further, it must be required that Parks Management Company print clearly on all kiosk fee receipts issued at Paradise Road, that no fees are required for access to and parking at the multiple undeveloped recreation sites beyond the kiosk. Putting the correct fee information directly into each driver’s hands is clearly needed.

Keep Sespe Wild, an Ojai-based watershed organization, has critiqued this pattern of the collection of illegal access fees by kiosk staff since the fee program began.

Los Padres administrators have taken no action to correct this. Last fall they had the opportunity to add safeguards for the forest-recreating public to Parks Management Company’s new five-year permit, but they declined to do so.

We are therefore asking members of the public to contact us with a statement about their interaction with the kiosk staff at Paradise Road. We shall use these statements to establish the ongoing levying of illegal access fees, with the appropriate authorities.

To participate, please email Keep Sespe Wild at sespecoyne@gmail.com or call us at (805) 921-0618, before you drive by the kiosk.

Alasdair Coyne is conservation director of the Keep Sespe Wild Committee.


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