With the recent Ninth Circuit Decision, suggesting that the Recreation Enhancement Act of 2004 disallows “parking fees” on the national forests, I think it time to begin to think through some issues that surround the Forest Service recreation fee debacle. ‘Area access’ fees have been highly controversial since at least the late 1990s (See, e.g. my To Fee or Not to Fee?)
I think that many would agree that right now we have too many users for some of our public places, e.g. some National Forests, some National Parks, etc. And many would agree that there are too few dollars to oversee recreation programs on public lands. There are law enforcement problems, garbage collection issues, rest-room facilities issues, environmental damage problems, and more. It seems that there are always, everywhere, too few dollars chasing too many initiatives. Or maybe the federal government just doesn’t prune initiatives or programs back to fit the realities of budgets. In any case there is always plenty to fight over when it comes to money.
In this little note and follow-ups we will begin to sort out what is ‘at issue’ regarding recreation programs and dollars, and to see whether we few bloggers and commentators can find any common ground on issues and resolutions. Here are my preliminary issues: congestion (How do we disperse and/or discourage use where resource damage or experience degradation results from congestion?), ease of fee collection and participation, distribution of moneys, government agency culture transformation.
Congestion/Dispersion of Use
Let’s begin with congestion. Some would propose that fees be used to help disperse users from over-used areas to other areas. But in this day it might be that other measures could be used to disperse use. For example, federal land managers could require passes for over-used areas—passes that could be allocated via computer-based lottery and waiting lines at places of entry (e.g. a FS Ranger Station). These could be administered and allocated for free. So, perhaps too easily we can take ‘congestion’ off the table when discussing recreation fees.
Fee Collection—ease of collection, ease of participation
With congestion issues off the table at least for now, maybe we can look directly at fees to used to defray government costs. If the Congress wants to charge access fees, in addition to specific facility fees that are allowed in the 2004 Recreation Enhancement Act, then it would seem prudent to have people buy an ‘all federal lands’ pass, that could be used anywhere on federal lands for specific periods of time. This is not my recommendation, but rather a least impact means to an end. [Here is my plea for free primitive recreation on the National Forests.] At minimum the Congress ought to disallow the piecemeal, nightmarish type fees now common on federal lands. An annual pass comes to mind, that would be available at all federal public lands facilities and also on the Internet. It might be an interesting twist to allow users with scant means a free pass, if they were to pass an income/asset test—although I don’t really see an easy way to administer a test like that.
Distribution of Fee Money
There are problems associated with allowing local units to keep the monies they collect from fees. I would like to see local units keep none of it, except as filtered through governmental funding mechanisms. First, there are equity problems that accrue to, say, national forests that don’t have the attraction points (focal points) that other forests have. Second, there is the incentive to pump up prices to cover costs, a phenomenon known to some as ‘budget conservation and enhancement,’ or simply ‘budget maximization.’ I’m sure there are other issues, but let’s move on. Of course the forests flush with cash from a ‘keep it local’ advantage, will argue the flip side of this argument.
Government Agency Culture Transformation
Finally, there is the problem of creeping commercialization—the problem of government forest managers perceiving themselves to be business people rather than government administrators. This problem has to do with government administrators and their attitude and behaviors toward outfitters and guides and concessionaires (including big-ticket items like ski resorts). Do we really want the US Forest Service to move further into the marketization/commercialization world? If not, how might the Congress work to ensure that government agencies act like government agencies and not perceive themselves to be in business?
So. Take your best shot at me, both as to the issues I put on the table and those I left off. Also, what might we do to help the Congress, as well as the Forest Service and other agencies, as they continue to grapple with recreation fee issues?