Forest Service Recreation Funding II: What Would You Do?

Your responses to the post below on the San Gabriel and charging for some Fourteeners were intriguing, and the topic of how to fund recreation on the national forests seems worthy of more exploration.

It seems to me that water and recreation could be argued to be the two most important services that national forests provide. Yet the funding of recreation does not seem to have the vociferous, organized and powerful support that it should to ensure adequate budgets from Congress. Here’s an op-ed from the Grand Junction Sentinel yesterday that says there isn’t enough for watershed protection either; so recreation is not alone.

So here is the situation- the 14ers area is not unique- quoted from the Colorado Springs Business Journal article here:

The Forest Service says it doesn’t have the funds to minimize the effects of hikers on the environment.

On average, 4,500 people visit the basin during the summer climbing season, with a 3- to 5- percent increase each year for the past decade or so.

With heavy use, the main system trails are being degraded, climbing routes are being eroded and human waste is a major concern, Crespin said. Fecal chloroform levels in the streams are high. Also, wildlife has become accustomed to humans.

Another issue is the frequency of search-and-rescue calls to the area.

The proposal behind the new fees limits the Forest Service to spending the revenue it collects only within the fee area.

Opponents say that over-use problems need to be resolved without fees.

“There are signs the area is being over-used. But there are better ways to manage over-use than to price people out of using their own public lands, which is what I think this will do,” Kitty Benzar, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, said.

The coalition isn’t opposed to a permit system to limit the number of people in the basin at any one time; it just doesn’t want permits to cost money.

Crespin said fees would allow the Forest Service to install trash dumpsters on the South Colony access road, do ecological monitoring and continue restoration efforts. The agency has spent $1 million in the last 15 years for restoration in the affected area.

Which door would you open in this situation?

Update 5/23: In this op-ed Kitty Benzar makes a couple of interesting claims.

1. “consider that its congressionally appropriated funding has increased by 72 percent since 2000, compared to inflation of about 28 percent during that time. And no, that increase did not all go to firefighting.”

2.”The Herald’s May 18 editorial said that a fee of merely $10 or $20 won’t deter mountain climbers, but the Pike-San Isabel National Forest must disagree because that is exactly why its managers want to do it. Their primary stated reason for the fee is to reduce visitation.” Note.. this does not agree with the remarks of Paul Crespin quoted above.

Also here’s the Denver Post editorial board on the same subject.

But money for natural resource management is scarce, and we don’t see a fourteener usage fee as a great departure from the current practice of managing other federal resources, whereby fees are charged to enter national parks and campers pay to use camp sites.

Update 5/24 Here’s a broader article on the topic by Bobby Magill for the Coloradoan. As usual (IMHO), he has a clear and even- handed approach to the topic, including some thoughts by John Loomis, an economist at Colorado State University.

10 thoughts on “Forest Service Recreation Funding II: What Would You Do?”

  1. At first glance it seems like the Forest Service is caught up in a “damned if you do or don’t” dilemma re: recreation fees.

    But as I thought more about it, I reflected on a TV commercial where top managers sit around a table trying to find areas to cut costs. Finally, one of them says, “What about all this stuff?” “What stuff?”, another says. “All this stuff!”– pointing to the stacks of paper and reports piled high on the conference room table. Then they see the light. They agree that the cost might be in the millions. So too with the Forest Service.

    How much is misspent on over-complexified planning? How much is misspent on the endless, often mindless conference calls, and in-person meetings? Some of all three — meeting, plans, conference calls — are needed, but not the number or the type seen in the Forest Service.

    There is plenty of money available to fund a modest recreation program without resort to onerous access fees for the very lands that the American people already own. Still, I agree that there are valid arguments on both sides of this issue, as I outlined in To Fee or Not to Fee?, in 1999, wherein I concluded:

    At bottom, only one thing seems clear. When dealing with questions of governance of public lands with both commercial and private users there are no easy answers. It gets even messier when we admit that most users are also owners with deeply held, conflicting cultural values.

    Until the Forest Service takes a serious look at its culture, management, and leadership, I will continue my opposition to “revenue enhancement” as a cure-all to the many FS Sins of Omission.

  2. Having previously collected fees in a heavy recreation use area of the forest service I have listened time and again to public comments about fees. People were happy and proud to pay fees for service…………However, the forest service seems to have forgotten how to put SERVICE back in their mission to the public. Where is the customer appreciation in giving people what they want. People want to recreate…………that is clearly abundant. The public, from what I have listened to, seems to be plainly frustrated that their fees are gobbled up in “management”. How many managers does it take to run a recreation program? Every person that works in recreation should truly work in recreation and not faux manage it from afar. Centralized work stations from the supervisors office or some other 2 hour one way drive are ridiculous and an insult to workers and the public. A customer base approach is what I argue for. There are plenty of statistics regarding how many visitors use days and how much money is spent from NVUM studies (National Visitor Use Monitoring). It’s time to put that data to use and truly put SERVICE first in recreation.

  3. Erin, thanks for your comment! It is great to get comments from people with on-the-ground experience. Do you have ideas about what you would put into practice to ensure that fees were only going directly for customer service?

  4. Yes, I propose that the “fees” are kept on the district or at least on the forest and are not sent off to the Forest Service centralized account. Since fees are collected on the district that would save a lot of time and money to not send it off and have it triple and quadruple processed just to have 80% of the money sent back. As a side note 100% of donations collected stay on the district so they are a great way to generate money for specific projects!! It seems like the Forest Service spends an inordinate amount of labor and time just simply counting the money over and over again.
    Also, I am strongly opposed to building anything new until the Forest Service can figure out how to fund and maintain what it has!! New projects have a lot of energy and enthusiasm behind them for planning and publicity but there is so much deteriorated infrastructure I think it is highly imprudent to plow full force with new projects when there is not enough money for “seasonal employment” that maintains the facilities.

  5. Erin- Your first point makes sense to me. I wonder why it works the way it does now? Does anyone out there know?

    Your second point reminds me of recent efforts by the Park Service to manage previously FS facilities and lands. Why does it work to acquire new responsibilities for the NPS but not for the FS? I wonder if they have a better budget strategy?

    In this article about why the NPS should manage Mt. St. Helens (found on the National Parks and Conservation Association website), these statements are made:

    Federal Funding
    Although both the Forest Service and the NPS rely on federal appropriations to fund the core operation of units under their respective management,there are significant differences in the manner in which each agency’s funding requests take place that directly impact the money available to units such as Mount St. Helens. For example, although both the NPS and the Forest Service request a federal budget each year through a “Budget Justification,” the fundamental building blocks of the NPS Budget Justification differ significantly from those of the Forest Service. The NPS requests federal funds by category (e.g., maintenance) for each specific park unit. Using this method, categorized expenditures justified for one park are earmarked for those categories of expenditures in that particular park. This budget method creates a stable and reasonably predictable budget at the administrative level of a particular NPS unit, and is appropriate to serve the mandate of the NPS.
    The Forest Service approaches its budget in a very different manner. Instead of budgeting for categories of expenditures for each unit, the Forest Service budgets for categories of expenditures over the system as a whole. This creates a structure consistent with the Forest Service’s multiple use, sustained yield mandate where funds are more fluid and can be directed toward the Forest Service’s most pressing priorities. Although this budgetary approach has merit in terms of managing the Nation’s forests, which may have similar needs (e.g., fire control), it does not serve to ensure that unique units such as National Monuments receive adequate attention. Instead, the Forest Service’s method serves to place monuments such as Mount St. Helens in direct competition with other Forest Service units for recreational funding, and perhaps more importantly, in direct competition for funding with other priorities of the Forest Service, such as fire prevention and control.
    For these reasons, National Monuments under the management of the NPS tend to receive higher operational funding from the federal government than do equivalent Forest Service units, including Mount St. Helens.

    I don’t know exactly that rec funding is really in competition with other priorities except at some generic total budget level…would appreciate any thoughts others have on these statements..

    It does make me think, thought, does the FS need an equivalent of the National Parks Conservation Association?

  6. When dispersed FS recreation fees were first proposed, the Oregon Dunes NRA district ranger said he would be happy to give up all appropriations in return for being able to retain user fees to provide recreation services. He was also a hands-on manager. On one visit to the Coast with my kids, I was pleasantly stunned to see the district ranger sitting in the fee booth greeting visitors, passing out maps, and collecting fees.

    The Forest Service never did let his district keep the fees. Instead, the fees were siphoned off to subsidize failing recreation programs elsewhere. He could no longer provide the recreation services for which people were willing to pay. He retired embittered at the bureaucracy. Just one more reason why Forest Service employees rate their leadership among the worst in the federal government.

  7. Thanks for that link, Andy, that is a very cool website. I particularly like that you can compare agencies. Here is a comparison of FS, BLM and EPA. The differences in terms of strategic leadership are not impressive 46, 48, and 52%, respectively.

    I would be curious to hear some of your ideas as to what you would do if you were Chief for a Year (say) to make things better.. either specifically about rec fees or more generally.. maybe that would be worthy of its own post.

  8. This article is an illustration of how money seems to be swiftly and easily diverted in the forest service by the regional office. The money may return it may not but every year (in my experience) there seems to be some imminent threat that sucks the money away. Recreation and maintenance are no budgetary competition for public safety concerns real or otherwise.

  9. I’ve struggled with the recreation fee issue. Seems like the devil is in the details—how the money is collected, used, the types of safeguards provided in the program, how to prevent perverse incentives, and the whole problem of thinking of citizens like customers.

    There is a legitimate debate to have, with both sides making important points. Regrettably, I don’t think Congress or its Committees have really thought about these issues that much. If I recall correctly, the expansion of fee demo happened via policy rider, with no preceding Congressional Committee debate. A lot needs to be worked out before moving forward with such a program at a larger scale, or with other financial augmentation strategies like ecosystem service markets.

    As for Park budgets, they are quite different but present their own sets of problems. One of which is that state Congressional delegations often treat Park units like their own fiefdoms, and I’ve heard some people complain that the budgeting structure of the Parks pits Congressional delegations against one another, with more senior and powerful Congressional members winning out. I haven’t seen any empirical evidence of this, but I’ve thought about the situation in analyzing some place-based forest proposals, as the Tester and Wyden bills would require similar sorts of place-based budgets.

    And here is a link to a very good exchange about recreation fees in the old Wild Earth, between Andy Kerr and Bethanie Walder:


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