The Role of Federal Agencies in Recreation-Information Systems

On November 15, 1995, members of the American Recreation Coalition and guests discussed the future of recreation-information systems and the role that the federal government should play in the management of recreation-related information. The discussion highlighted both the ways in which dramatic changes in technology are already affecting information management and the necessity of communication and cooperation within the federal government and between the public and private sectors to ensure the effective collection and use of recreation information. The discussions were the basis for the following policy statement:

Information systems — the tools that allow us to collect, store, access and distribute information — are changing at a breathtaking pace. Millions of people now have access to advanced technology that can bring a world of information to their homes and businesses at the touch of a button. Communication is easy, global and practically instantaneous, but not always effective. In today’s information society — the world of the Internet and its World Wide Web, of CD-ROM’s and CNN — information providers are still faced with the challenge of being effective, of making sure that their product, information, is needed and wanted and used.

Within the outdoor recreation community, the effective communication of information inevitably involves both the private and public sectors. Both provide recreational goods and services to the same customers, but the public sector has the additional responsibility of managing a massive resource base — millions of acres of public lands and waters — that are the focus of much of the American outdoor recreation experience. The American Recreation Coalition believes that it is especially important to define the information-management role that should be played by the public sector, specifically the federal land-management agencies. As part of that definition process, ARC believes that the following issues should be addressed: 1) the assessment of fees for federal recreation-information management; 2) the role of inter-agency cooperation at both the federal and state levels; and 3) the necessity for, and delineation of, private-public partnerships.

First and foremost, ARC believes that the collection and distribution of information about recreation opportunities on public lands and waters is an integral part of these agencies’ primary missions, rather than a secondary, nonessential activity. Accordingly, ARC believes that information management is already supported by the American taxpayer and does not need to be justified further in terms of its revenue-raising potential. That being said, however, ARC also recognizes that in today’s difficult budgetary climate, the agencies may need additional funding sources to provide and maintain quality information about the resources they manage. ARC believes that good information management can enhance and increase recreational use of our public lands and further believes that enhanced and increased recreational use can mean higher revenues for the agencies if the equitable, efficient recreational fee systems previously endorsed by ARC are put into place. ARC also recognizes that assessment of fees for access to information that is needed and used by a relatively small population may sometimes be appropriate.

ARC also believes that inter-agency cooperation is crucial to effective recreation- information management. Not only would such cooperation be more efficient from a cost basis — eliminating unnecessary tasks, technology and personnel — it would also allow the federal government to better assess the information resources that it can make available and address the information needs of its customers. It is worth noting that the federal agencies are working cooperatively to integrate the land-management information they are gathering — for example, the location of wetlands, the identification of endangered species habitat or the analysis of soil types — using Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Taking the next step from sharing information on general land management to sharing information on recreation opportunities simply makes sense. ARC recognizes that full cooperation — that is, one government agency using another agency’s system — may be difficult to achieve, but steps toward this type of cooperation should be encouraged by policy makers.

ARC believes that such cooperative efforts must also include state government agencies, which also play key roles in providing the public with recreation opportunities. In fact, state fish and wildlife agencies are already active partners with federal land agencies for fishing, hunting and wildlife-viewing programs; other state agencies are key to the network of roads that make federal recreation sites accessible. Such partnerships can easily form the basis for better cooperation and communication in the area of recreation-information management. Again, ARC recognizes the difficulties inherent in achieving such cooperation, but remains convinced of its importance to effective information management.

ARC believes that partnerships between the private and public sectors can greatly enhance recreation-information management and thus should be actively encouraged. As a start, to avoid hampering legitimate partnership initiatives, ARC believes that the federal government should relax overly strict interpretations of the ban on federal endorsement of products and services. In the past, such interpretations have effectively discouraged private-sector partners — who were not interested in endorsements but did expect some credit for their roles — from helping to share the cost of distributing recreation information.

ARC also believes that the public and private sectors’ most effective information-management roles are essentially complementary. ARC recognizes that the federal resource-management agencies have unique access to data on recreation opportunities and attractions. In contrast, private entities, which are less constrained by procedure and precedent, are uniquely positioned to package, deliver — and even personalize — that information for their customers, especially those whose inquiries are likely to lead directly to financial transactions, from reserving a campsite to signing up for a rafting trip. At the same time, ARC believes that the public sector should remain as objective as possible in its information management while the private sector should be responsible for providing the kinds of subjective judgments — like evaluating the merits of different campgrounds or assessing the peak times for viewing foliage — that enhance the value of basic recreation information.

ARC further recognizes that the effective distribution of information today requires much more than the fact-filled brochures and helpful staffers traditionally provided by both the public and private sectors. ARC believes that the implementation of new information- delivery technologies, whether involving on-line computer services, interactive cable television, voice mail or some other medium, does require investment flexibility more characteristic of the private sector than the public sector. As a result, ARC believes that private enterprise in the area of information management and delivery should be actively encouraged and that the public sector should work closely with the private sector to ensure that its data-collection efforts produce information that their joint customers will consider both useful and timely. For example, recreation travelers not only are interested in having basic information about the public-land site they may be visiting, but they also need information about the current conditions of the roads they will be using. The public sector is clearly qualified to be the source of such information. In contrast, ARC believes that the private sector should focus its efforts on organizing that information, adding to it as appropriate — for example, by including information on special events being held on or near public-land sites — and delivering it to the public, using the best "open-architecture" technology available.