WHAT WOULD SENSIBLE RECREATION FEE LEGISLATION LOOK LIKE?

From the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition.  It’s rare that folks start with general principles and work from there (although I think it’s a good idea before you get into the nitty-gritty detail). What do you all think of what they’ve come up with?
“WHAT WOULD SENSIBLE RECREATION FEE LEGISLATION LOOK LIKE?

No one thinks that the use of highly developed or specialized facilities on federal lands should be free. But because our National Forests and BLM lands are a national heritage and birthright that provide important benefits to all Americans, we should be able to enjoy general access to them, as well as the use of minimal facilities that protect resources, health and safety, in return for the taxpayer funding that we provide to the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Finding the right balance between what should be funded by everyone and what should be paid for by users is not easy. Provided here are the general principles that we think federal fee legislation should adhere to. We have also provided, at our website, model language for discussion that follows these principles. Going forward we will be promoting these principles to Congress as a framework for future legislation to replace FLREA with a law that will be successful with both the agencies and the public far into the future.

Background
From the beginning of our country until 1996, with the exception of National Park entrance fees, general recreation fees on federally managed public lands were virtually unknown. In 1996, under pressure from commercial recreation interests, Fee Demo was enacted. It was an anything-goes experiment that allowed fees everywhere, for everything. Fee Demo was intended to discover what fees would be accepted by the public, and what fees would not, on lands other than National Parks, such as National Forests and BLM lands.

What were mostly acceptable were fees to use developed or specialized facilities.

What were strenuously opposed were fees for general access.

The 2004 Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) represented an attempt by Congress to apply what had been learned under Fee Demo to assure fee-free general access to National Forests and BLM lands, while providing the land management agencies with the authority to charge, collect and retain the types of fees that had proven acceptable to the public.

But by the time FLREA was enacted the agencies had become accustomed to being able to charge fees for anything, anywhere, and they resisted the new restrictions imposed by Congress. The Forest Service and BLM continued to charge fees that had been shown under Fee Demo to be unacceptable and which FLREA prohibited. Time has shown that the restrictive language included in FLREA by Congress  was insufficiently tightly written to prevent agency abuse.

FLREA is set to expire on September 30, 2016. But Congress is expected to act in 2015 to take up legislation to replace FLREA. That new legislation must place specific limits upon the fees agencies can charge. It must do so clearly and without ambiguity.

Principles
What follows are principles, based upon nearly 20 years of experience gained since the passage of Fee Demo, that should govern federal recreation fees. If new legislation follows these principles the agencies will have adequate latitude to charge and retain reasonable fees, but will have to abide by clearly defined limitations that will protect the public’s right to general access onto lands that we all own in common.

– Public lands are a valued public good that provides important benefits to all Americans.
– National Forests and BLM lands are public lands for which other funds are made available by Congress.
– Recreation fees should never be expected to cover the entire cost of recreation management.
– Recreation fees should be supplemental to the funding provided by Congress and should only be imposed where there is a demonstrated need to provide supplemental benefits.
– Fee revenues should be expended to directly benefit those who paid them.
– Entrance fees should be allowed only for National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges.
– In Parks and Refuges where an entrance fee is established, no additional fee should be charged for interpretive programs and visitor centers that promote an understanding and appreciation of the values for which the unit was established.
– On National Forests and BLM lands, fees should only be allowed for the actual use of developed facilities or for specialized activities, and only where there is a demonstrated need.
– Perverse incentives to build unneeded facilities in order to justify charging fees must be eliminated.
– Fees should be prohibited for general access to Forests and BLM lands, including dispersed camping outside of developed campgrounds, travel to or through undeveloped lands and waters, snow play, wildlife viewing, trail use, parking, and access to designated wilderness or other backcountry dispersed areas.
– Fees should be prohibited for the use, either singly or in any combination, of drinking water, wayside exhibits, roads, overlook sites, scenic drives, toilet facilities, or picnic tables. Where these basic facilities cannot be provided using appropriated funds, they should not be offered.
– Fees charged at federal recreation facilities that are managed by private contractors or permittees should be subject to the same requirements and restrictions as those at federally-managed facilities, including acceptance of federal passes.
– Fee program overhead and administration should not be allowed to exceed 15% of gross revenues. This must include fee-collection materials, contracts with third parties for fee collection, and sales commissions paid to third-party vendors.
– Fee revenue should first be spent on backlogged maintenance at the facility where it was collected. Only when there is no backlogged maintenance should it available to be spent on new facilities or improvements, and only if such improvements are required and appropriate.
– Failure to pay a recreation fee should be treated as an infraction and not a misdemeanor as is currently the case under FLREA.
– The maximum penalty for failure to pay a required recreation fee should be set at $100.
– Establishing and increasing fees by the agencies must be done in an open and transparent fashion operating under congressional oversight.
– The agencies must provide opportunity for robust public participation and a mechanism must be provided to ensure public input is given full consideration when decisions are made involving the establishment of new and/or increased recreation fees.

The Western Slope No-Fee Coalition has drafted model fee legislation that comports with these principles and which amplifies, clarifies and defines terms and concepts presented in them. We offer this model as a ready-to-go bill or as a starting point for the creation of de novo legislation that uses different language to accomplish the same goals. A bill that adheres to these principles should receive broad public support and will well serve the interests of both the recreating public and the managers of our public lands whose job it is to provide for recreational access.”

12 Comments

  1. If the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition wants fewer fees, they’re aiming their fire in the wrong direction. They need to be writing Congress and demanding that more money get put in NFRW, CMFC and CMTL.

    As long as the recreation budget keeps declining at the current pace, forest recreation managers have three choices: put a fee on it, concession it out, or shut it down.

  2. If the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition wants fewer fees, they’re aiming their fire in the wrong direction. They need to be writing Congress and demanding that more money get put in NFRW, CMFC and CMTL.

    “Where these basic facilities cannot be provided using appropriated funds, they should not be offered.” Well, then get ready for a lot fewer trails, trailheads, parking lots, snow play areas or anything else on national forests. As long as the recreation budget keeps declining at the current pace, forest recreation managers have three choices: put a fee on it, concession it out, or shut it down. The appropriated dollars are just not there anymore, even for basic things like trail maintenance or collecting garbage at trailheads. There is no magic bullet here and no “overhead waste,” it’s a matter of not even being able to fund your permanent employees, much less have anything left over for operations and maintenance.

    • Travis, It’s not just a recreation problem. It’s systemic. Recreation woes sound a lot like timber woes. The resource goes to hell while Congress refuses to fund essential management and the Forest Service focuses on “Cultural Diversity” . The National Forests now are cutting about 7% of their annual growth while 6 times that volume dies from fire, insects, and disease. This, while communities die, industries close, and local governments and school districts go bankrupt. No wonder F.S. morale is underwater.

      Establishing principles is nice but unless both Congress and the Forest Service radically change you’re rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

  3. Some of these “principles” are hard to understand. For example, “Entrance fees should be allowed only for National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges.” Is this really a principle or more of a dislike of other land management agencies like the BLM and Forest Service? Considering there are many areas of BLM/FS lands specifically managed for the purpose of recreation opportunity it appears that this “principle” would be more accurately stated by saying only certain types of recreation such as non-motorized, non-consumptive based recreation should be facilitated through additional fees. At least, that is the only “principle” I can think of that would lead to this restriction… unless of course, they just like NPS and FWS better.

  4. I’m with MD, confused about how the No Fees coalition is using the word “principle.”

    Familiar principles in the fee debate include “user pays” versus “taxpayers already pay.” “Fees should not degrade quality of re-creation experiences” and “federally-subsidized recreation should not undercut private sector recreation.” Or, “fees should cover costs” and “fees should not create barriers to low-income recreationists.”

    Public land recreation fee policy is a small part of the larger “role of government” debate. Should government re-distribute wealth or subsidize the already wealthy? Is there a commonweal and should government promote it? Should bureaucracies respond to financial incentives or be regulated to a different standard?

    Where one allies in answering these sorts of questions is a pretty good indicator of one’s views on recreation fees.

    • “Public land recreation fee policy is a small part of the larger “role of government” debate. Should government re-distribute wealth or subsidize the already wealthy? Is there a commonweal and should government promote it? Should bureaucracies respond to financial incentives or be regulated to a different standard?”

      Andy you are exactly right. That’s why we should first be talking about principles before throwing together hodgepodge legislation made out of bits and pieces of stale old ideas that don’t fit within a coherent framework. (Such as HR 5204 in the last session.)

  5. Our support for Park and Refuge entrance fees is an acknowledgement of reality, not reflective of any negative opinion about FS or BLM. (Interesting that it was taken personally.) Entrance fees for those types of units have been in place for many years and have generally been acceptable to the public. There are many reasons why, I’ll let others make that case.
    It’s the fees for undeveloped or minimally developed areas, which we’ve had only since 1996, that are where our efforts have always been focused. Starting with Fee Demo the FS and BLM began monetizing access to the natural world (entrance fees for ENTIRE National Forests!) Then when FLREA began requiring a certain level of development in fee sites, “amenities” started appearing (think: Rubbermaid trash cans and porta-potties) that nobody had ever asked for and which are arguably unnecessary, merely to justify a fee. My position is, if appropriated funding is not sufficient to cover the cost of the basics, then take them out. Don’t provide trash cans – educate about Pack It In Pack It Out instead – and write a few tickets for littering instead of thousands for failure to pay fees. Put up signs blaming Congress if you like, but don’t punish the public by making every SST a pay toilet. Let me watch the sun set over a lake, or snowshoe through the forest, without trying to monetize those kinds of experiences.
    “Give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees, please.” – J. Mitchell

    • We legally can’t put up signs that say “Blame Congress,” Kitty, and whether or not there’s a sign that says “Pack it out,” some folks are still going to toss their trash on the ground and some folks are still going to call us and complain. Moreover, I would argue that pit toilets are hardly “unnecessary” in an area with even a modest level of public use.

      The fact of the matter is that the outcome of arguing for fewer recreation fees but not more recreation dollars would be simple: fewer recreation opportunities on the national forests.

  6. Recreation, tourism was suppose to help support our rural communities when most of the federal forests were set aside as critical habit. But it seems what happened is that the agencies budgets were decreased, so roads were closed, campgrounds were closed and opportunities for recreation and tourism decrease. So recreation hasn’t really supported much of a rural economy, or have the agencies been able to keep up with maintenance necessary to keep these recreational opportunities open.
    And this is still a problem, and I keep kicking the same can down the road. Our federal forests roads are lined with billions of dollars of harvestable dead timber. Need some money? There it is.
    Let salvage logging subsidize keeping our public lands open for all kinds of recreation.

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