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Issue Room: Empty Your Pockets
BY STEFAN J. JACKSON
NOLS PUBLIC POLICY MANAGER

Reprinted from The Leader, Fall 1999.

RECREATION USER FEES

Background

Since 1997, Congress has authorized the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service to experiment with new fee programs under the auspices of the Recreation User Fee Demonstration Program. Each agency was authorized through the year 2001 to carry out 100 experiments in collecting fees for recreational use of the public lands each manages. NOLS has been supportive of recreation fee demo program for a variety of reasons:

  • Public land agencies are strapped for cash, and the funding situation for recreation management and resource stewardship does not look bright in the future, barring a major shift in federal budget priorities.

  • The program for the first time allows agencies to keep all the fees collected rather than dump those fees into the general treasury where they are appropriated for things mostly having nothing to do with public land management. Under the program, up to 80 percent of the money can stay in the area where the fees are collected, the other 20 percent can be held by the agency collecting the fees. There is a real potential for recreationists, our students, alumni, and staff, to see improved recreation services on the ground where they paid the fees. Receiving these dollars directly rather than forcing the agency to seek them through the appropriations process, means 1) the agency gets the money, and 2) the agency saves the time, energy, and money getting the money they need. These collected fees represent several fold the value of appropriated dollars.

  • The experimental demonstration program format allows the agencies and Congress to learn what works and what does not in terms of recreation fee collection. It is a sound alternative to permanent fee authority that Congress was moving to enact. The proposals at the cusp of enacting premature legislation were solely modeled after the NPS fees system, without the benefit of experience or experimentation gained from the demo program, the other agencies would. The constructive potential for the program is that each agency will develop appropriate and equitable mean of collecting fees for use of the lands each manages, and develop these means before permanent authorization is passed. It needs to be clarified that Congress has never intended to make the experimental demonstration program permanent, but does favor making fee authorization permanent.

As the program has progressed, some outdoor enthusiasts, user groups and outdoor industry businesspeople have expressed opposition to the user fee program. While the public land management agencies say their surveys indicate that users largely support the fees, anti-fee articles in user magazines have increased and some user groups have taken positions opposing fees. Some of the opposition is to specific fee demo projects and some of it is philosophical: they consider fees double taxation, or believe the fee program will lead to commercialization of our forests.

NOLS continues to support the recreation user fee demonstration program. At every opportunity we try to be accountable and responsible for our use. Our position has been that the revenues generated should "supplement, not supplant" appropriation to the agencies. Our criticisms with the program are that it is being poorly and inconsistently implemented and evaluated. The evaluation of an experiment should be rigorous and conclusive. The agencies have done little to end the poorly working demonstrations and attempt to replicate the demos that are working. The opportunities for experimentation are being squandered. Backcountry, wilderness, or dispersed recreation demonstration projects have been largely a failure, inconsistencies in application and enforcement abound, and public opposition for these experimental programs has been the most vocal.


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