Position of the American Recreation Coalition on Recreation Fees at Federal Sites

Fees for use of public recreation facilities and services are not new. Fees were established early in the history of the national park system and today generate more than $100 million annually in federal receipts, collected chiefly by the National Park Service and the Forest Service through entrance fees, camping fees, ski area permit fees and assorted other recreation fees collected from recreationists and those providing recreation services on public lands.

Much of the philosophical and legal basis for recreation fees is outlined in the 1964 Land and Water Conservation Fund Act. The act was the product of those who recognized the importance of recreation in America, and it has enriched our lives immeasurably through strategic increases to federal and state land systems. Yet a great deal has changed since the time of this act and, despite periodic amendments under the guidance of this Committee, the criteria and specific provisions for fees deserve careful review and a new clear and comprehensive strategy.

The framework for a new recreation fee strategy is outlined in the 1987 report of the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors. It argued that public recreation program spending needed to rise and that primary responsibility for the increases should fall upon those who are the direct beneficiaries of these programs. The report noted that recreation expenditures by Americans exceed $300 billion annually and represent a steadily increasing share of consumer discretionary spending. But the report also argued for accountability between fees and services provided. While our present budgetary situation does not allow us to provide a figurative "free lunch," we cannot and should not forget that after charging for lunch, we have an obligation to serve the food.

ARC supports federal recreation fees if the fees meet the following principles:

  • the fees are equitable, and aimed at recovering costs where the services and facilities provided represent significant costs to American taxpayers;
  • the fee system is efficient, costing the least amount practical to administer; the fees are convenient for the recreationist, so that voluntary compliance is readily achievable;
  • the fee system is coherent and integrated, so that overlapping charges are minimized and federal, state and local fees are integrated where appropriate (such as Sikes Act provisions for hunting and fishing fees on federal lands, collected as a supplement to state licenses, or the Pacific Northwest’s winter park program); and
  • the fee revenues are returned to benefit resources, facilities and programs utilized by those paying the fees.
ARC believes that new and higher recreation fees must have a demonstrable positive impact on resource protection and visitor services. While it is true that recreationists today do not pay fees equivalent to the entire cost of managing recreation on federal lands, fee increases which are designed solely to replace general fund appropriations will be unpopular and difficult to implement. Moreover, recreational activities are a non-consumptive use of the American legacy of the outdoors, in contrast to certain other public land uses -- which also often fail to pay fully for the costs to the taxpayer. Recreation is also a positive force in bolstering the economies of communities which have undergone reductions in commodity industry activities, including timber, oil, gas, minerals and grazing.

ARC believes that the Congress should establish which recreation program costs should be recovered through fees. Recreation-related expenditures by federal agencies include a mix of land acquisition, capital investments in facilities and operations and maintenance costs. We believe that acquisition of lands and waters should not be funded through recreation fees, since the benefits of ownership of these areas benefit future generations of Americans and not just current visitors. We do believe that it is reasonable to expect that visitors to federal recreation areas, including parks, forests, refuges and other units, can be generally expected to pay for the costs of the services provided to them and the operations and maintenance of the facilities they use. It is important to note, though, that operations and maintenance costs include many expenditures for the general protection of the natural resources of federal areas, including planning and implementation of mandates such as those under the Endangered Species Act.

ARC would prefer to see recreation fees considered in a government-wide context, perhaps through a new Recreation Fees and Public Lands Enhancement Act which would replace the fee authorities now found chiefly under the Land and Water Conservation Act. Federal land and water-managing agencies have a need for consistent direction in recreation fee policy and mechanisms for collecting and utilizing those fees.

ARC urges that recreation fees be used for the purpose the public believes they are being collected. Further, we support the treatment of these revenues in such a way as to make them immediately available to federal agencies. We believe that certain agency resources, including visitor services and maintenance, should be tied to marketplace changes. If visitation increases, more interpretation services will be sought and more trash will be generated -- more manpower must be made available. Similarly, if visitation drops federal officials can be expected to reduce outlays. Some units of federal land systems represent unique challenges to efforts to recover costs, including urban sites. Where possible and without creating new unfunded mandates, such costs should be underwritten through financing from local units of government and by creative public/private sector partnerships involving the recreation and tourism industries. In this process, some federal activities on federal lands might be altered. For example, National Park Service enforcement of local traffic laws on federally-managed roadways, such as the George Washington Memorial Parkway, could be transferred to state and local law enforcement agencies.

ARC also calls for legislation to put in motion a program approved by the Congress in 1993: non-federal sales of Golden Eagle Passes. ARC, the catalyst for this provision, has been stymied in its efforts to implement the program by a Department of the Interior conclusion that the passes could not be provided on consignment to our members, including L.L. Bean and the Coleman Company, who would act as a consortium to dramatically increase sales of the pass plus provide the public with valuable information on recreation opportunities at lesser known sites. Although the 1993 legislation permits a deduction of up to 8% of the purchase price to cover selling costs, this "commission" will barely cover the costs of handling and order processing. The Interior demand for prepayment torpedoes the program completely, making it too costly to implement.

Finally, ARC strongly supports innovative thinking on recreation fees. We urge the creation of several pilot areas where such concepts as barrier-free entry -- where those entering the park would be required to carry proof of entrance fee payment if stopped inside the park, but would not pass through a traditional "gate." This type of system is used successfully for fish and wildlife licenses in this country and for many transit programs in Europe. We encourage experimentation at individual sites to test out concepts prior to nationwide implementation; we suggest that at least one major national park where multi-day stays are common charge on departure. Currently, a single fee is charged for an entire stay -- whether a few hours or two weeks.

Other concepts which might be tested include: differential pricing designed to encourage visitation during non-peak periods; fee discounts for those arriving via public conveyances to reduce parking demand or for those who volunteer their time while visiting; automated fee collection; fee waivers for those whose ability to pay is limited; and reduced fees for those who use their visits to learn by attending interpretive programs. To provide incentives to federal managers of these areas, we would suggest that a goal be established to recover 90% of the cost of visitor recreation services in the test sites. If this goal is achieved, federal support for these sites would not be reduced below 100% of the funding provided in FY94, adjusted for inflation, and all revenues above 75% of costs could be available without appropriation and supplemental to any appropriated funds.

  1. Increased fee collection efforts may be undertaken on behalf of federal agencies by state, local and private partners. Examples of such efforts include Sikes Act provisions for hunting and fishing on national forests, winter park programs in the Pacific Northwest and the California "green sticker" program for ORV's. In addition, many national forest campgrounds are now operated by concessioners and under contracts. In these instances, little or none of the operating costs for these recreation services are incorporated in the agency budgets.
  2. A federal recreation fees advisory commission, comprised of three Congressional appointees and three Presidential appointees and chaired by the Secretary of the Interior, could be created to review federal agency recreation fee plans, including testing and adoption of innovative strategies and technologies.
  3. Sharing of federal recreation fees with local governments under PILT and the Roads and Trails Trust Fund should be examined and altered.