Lingering Recreation Fee Issues

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?

10 thoughts on “Lingering Recreation Fee Issues”

  1. Dave,
    Your title of “lingering” issues implies that you think the federal court ruling will be decisive as to parking fees, with only a few loose ends left to deal with. I think you’ve given the Forest Service too much credit for good citizenship. In fact their response so far has been near-total defiance of the court. In story after story, and in a press release from the Washington office, they are saying that their fee programs are going to continue without change. Business As Usual.
    Only the Supervisor of the specific Forest that was the subject of the lawsuit has responded to the court ruling by saying he will stop enforcing and will (in good time) take down the signs requiring fees for parking, trails, and roadside picnics. And even there, on the Coronado, the Supervisor is limiting his response to the one fee area the court ruled on, Mt Lemmon, and not extending it to identical nearby fees that are also on “his” Forest: Sabino Canyon and Madera Canyon.
    Other Forest managers in Arizona are saying, “that just applies to Mt Lemmon, not to us.” Managers in other states are saying “that’s just Arizona, it doesn’t apply to us.” And managers in other judicial circuits are saying “that’s just the 9th Circuit, we’re in the [fill in the blank] Circuit, it doesn’t apply to us.”
    The problem, as you correctly identified, is that local managers have been allowed to keep their fee revenue locally, and it has skewed their behavior and attitudes away from public service in ways that can only be described as greedy. One “business plan” for a Forest Service recreation area in Colorado frequented mainly by working-class, “Joe Sixpack” visitors, acknowledged that a proposed fee increase would likely displace many of the current users, but went on to say, chillingly, “They will be replaced with others who will comply.”
    The “creeping commercialization” you reference stopped “creeping” into the Forest Service years ago. It has long since stood up on its own, learned to walk and then to run, and is now the tail that wags the agency dog. For proof, look no further than the Forest Service policy of exempting concessionaire-managed facilities from FLREA, the federal fee law that governs which agencies can charge what fees. Where a concessionaire is in control, they are allowed to charge fees the agency would be prohibited from charging and they don’t accept federal passes that the agency is required to accept. They are even allowed to establish their own private passes and require those for access. The concessionaire doesn’t technically own the land but by controlling all access to it without regard for federal law, the land has been privatized in all but title.
    The Forest Service needs a stiff dose of congressional oversight, and that needs to start with taking away their fee retention authority, followed immediately with clear instruction that federal fee law applies on all federal land regardless of whether it is agency- or concessionaire-managed. There are some members of Congress willing to administer the medicine but they are far too few and the gridlock in Washington is too entrenched so nothing is likely to happen this year.

    • Kitty, thanks for posting on this blog. It is helpful to hear these points of view directly from you. Could you please share the business plan for a Forest Service recreation area in Colorado that you quoted? If it’s a document (and not a link) you can email to me at and I can post.

      PS You and I agree that the idea of using concessionaires, entered into to provide services with a too- small agency budget, has had unintended negative consequences.

      • Sharon,
        I’ll be happy to email you the business plan I quoted, It’s lengthy so I will give you the specific page reference as well. In addition I’d like to share with you a letter from a Forest Service official to a private citizens sent in response to an inquiry. He asked for an explanation as to why, since the FLREA allows the FS to retain recreation fee revenue, they are using private concessionaires to operate facilities instead of agency personnel. The response letter gives a succint explanation of their policy of exempting concession-managed sites from any of FLREA’s requirements or restrictions.
        I’ll send both documents shortly.

        • Thank you, Kitty!
          Here is the note from Kitty:

          Attached are two documents.
          1) the management plan for Green Mountain Reservoir, on the White River NF. This was written in 2006. It was presented to the Colorado Recreation Resource Advisory Committee in February 2008 in support of the Forest’s request for a fee increase. The RecRAC did not approve the increase. The quotation I used in my blog post is on page 56 of the pdf, page 53 of the hard copy.
          2) A letter from the Arapaho NF to a private citizen explaining the FS policy of exempting concessionaire-managed sites from the federal fee law, FLREA. I find this policy very troubling, as well as legally questionable.

          I attached the documents here: they may be large as they are in pdf, so be patient downloading.
          Green Mountain Plan

          Kitty- my dream would be to have a table (I believe tables have an important role in clarifying policy issues) that shows all the national passes and what they pay for/get reduced rates at for each kind of facility at each land management agency. I don’t really see why it should be different within a land management agency. The letter from the AR explains that it is different because they’re concessionaires, but perhaps that shouldn’t be.

          • Sharon,
            You said, “The letter from the AR explains that it is different because they’re concessionaires, but perhaps that shouldn’t be.”
            With all due respect, “perhaps”? The average citizen is completely floored by the FS’s claim that because they have made an internal, administrative, decision to use a concessionaire to manage an area, federal law can be set aside in that area. My Jewish grandmother had a word for that, and it was “chutzpah”. Out here on the ground in the hinterlands, we were under the impression that federal law governed the management of federal lands. It’s claims like those in the AR letter that have convinced me that the concessionaire industry has undue influence on Forest Service policy.

  2. Forest Service officials outwardly proclaim that 95% of fees paid, stay in the area where they have been collected. This is simply not true. Off the top, 20% of fees go to their regional and Washington offices where according to the Forest Service “administrative costs are captured [and] there are no local administrative costs.” What? An additional 15% goes towards “Cost of Collections” (obtaining a breakdown of how this money is spent is not possible). Adding in their true local administrative costs more than likely puts the amount of money that actually goes to the facilities of a local area to something quite a bit less than 50%.
    On the Tonto National Forest in Arizona the charge for some annual pass usage is now nearing $90. The Tonto has the most expensive “public lands” in the nation. Whether intended to or not, people who make their living by picking lettuce and cleaning toilets are being excluded. Is this a good model for running a democracy?

  3. David, I don’t know about exactly where the fees go so can’t comment on it. I hope someone else knows more than I do.

    I find it puzzling (but I don’t really understand fees) that at this site
    it says you can get a year pass for $80 that covers
    “Each pass covers entrance fees at national parks and national wildlife refuges as well as standard amenity fees at national forests and grasslands, and at lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation.”
    So it you could get “amenities” for $80 how can FS “Tonto only” be $90?

    So I looked on the Tonto page here About the Tonto pass and found this.

    The Tonto Pass is a daily (24-hour) recreation pass for visitors to more than 50 recreation sites where a daily-use fee is required on the Tonto National Forest. The Pass will be displayed on visitor’s vehicle rear-view mirror. The passes sell for $6.00 per vehicle plus a watercraft use fee of $4.00 per watercraft.

    While Rocky Mountain National Park, fee page here, is $20 per day (also near major urban areas). These same people that are excluded by $6 per day would also be excluded by $20 per day.

    Ergo, exclusion of people with low incomes is not strictly an FS problem.

    • Sharon,

      The following was taken directly from the Tonto’s website. Scroll to the end of this page:

      They will not take someone’s $80 America the Beautiful pass without payment of an additional “$15 Tonto Upgrade Fee.” Nowhere in the law is this authorized, it’s something the Forest Service has completely contrived. On that page you’ll also see a menu of daily upgrade fees that they require of Senior and Diabled pass holders. Again, this is a blatant violation of the law. (I also just noticed that they have additional “Water Craft Fees.”)

      Up until about 15 years ago, exclusion of people with low incomes was never a Forest Service problem. It’s now -an unspoken- part of their “business model.”

      I would argue that established National Park entrance fees would be an even greater reason for not having entrance fees put on the rest of our public lands. What would then be left, city parks? Should we put entrance fees on those too?



      National interagency passes on the Tonto National Forest: not valid by itself

      The Tonto National Forest does not charge entry fees (unlike, for example, national parks).
      [The Forest Service does this all over the country: they tell you what is an entry fee is actually not an entry fee]

      In order to visit recreation sites that require a daily-use fee on the Tonto National Forest an annual Tonto upgrade to the interangency pass is required. These upgrades are in the form of a decal that must be permanently attached to the windshield of the vehicle. Recreation sites include most day-use sites on the Salt and Verde rivers and their associated lakes, as well as the Seven Springs Recreation Area.

      Tonto annual passes, e.g., a national interagency pass plus an annual Tonto upgrade decal, are not valid for overnight use at highly developed campgrounds such as Tortilla, Cholla, Windy Hill, Schoolhouse, and Burnt Corral campgrounds. Tonto daily passes are required at these sites.

      The cost of the Tonto Annual Upgrade is $15, good for one year from the date of purchase. Expires last day of the month in the year card is punched. (For example: Purchase Oct. 1, 2009, expires October 31, 2010). This upgrade cannot be purchased without the National Interagency Pass.

      Holders of the Senior and Access passes are entitled to a 50 percent reduction in all daily recreation-use fees on the Tonto.

      Tonto Upgrade decals are available at Tonto offices and online.

      Tonto Daily-use passes can be purchased at Tonto offices, online and from a variety of vendors in the Phoenix Metropolitan area and beyond (private vendors).

      • Sharon,
        David’s post about how the fees are spent is as accurate as it’s possible to be given the Forest Service’s abominable fiscal management. The GAO said it best in GAO-09-443t:
        “Regarding its performance, the agency has not always been able to provide Congress and the public with a clear understanding of what its 30,000 employees accomplish with the approximately $5 billion the agency receives every year.”

        Informed observers, both pro-fee and anti-fee, agree that about 80% of the FS’s appropriated line-item for Recreation disappears into overhead and administration, never making it to the ground. The disagreement comes in what to do about that. Pro-fee interests want to allow local managers to raise their own funding via what can arguably called a direct tax, while anti-fee interests like me want to see the budget process reformed to reflect better priorities. The money is there from Congress, but it’s not being spent wisely or accounted for accurately.

        The $80 America the Beautiful Pass that you found on the NPS website provides entrance into all NPS units, and is marketed as a national inter-agency pass to all federal recreation fee sites. But the Forest Service does not require their concessionaires to accept it and only a miniscule few do. The concessionaire exemption is there in the fine print, but if a private company buried such a major restriction in the fine print, the federal government would be all over them like a rash for false advertising.

        Additionally, as in the Tonto example, the Forest Service does not honor the pass everywhere according to the marketing promises. It should get you in to all the Tonto’s agency-managed fee sites, but instead they require a $15 “upgrade” before they’ll accept it. This is not in the law, the Tonto simply made it up. There are other examples if you’re interested.

  4. I think in general, that the FS culture in the 21st Century need to adapt from decentralized as default to “consistency where it makes sense” . It might make sense to be more consistent about fees.But in the 21st Century, I would like to see all land management agencies have more consistency ( in charging the same for the same kind of services).

    Just so you know, there is a great deal of work in appeals and litigation of recreation related projects (travel management, ski area expansions, recreation special uses) that occurs in regional offices.. not sure that characterizing that as “overhead” or “administration” is appropriate. It’s just a piece of the work need to do recreation decisions.

    I would add on to what Char said above in this formulation ” let she whose large government organization is managed such that all the budget decisions are clear and transparent, and the workplan is not subject to seemingly-random initiatives at the behest of those governing the organization, cast the first stone.”

    Actually, the FS could learn a lot from such an organization.. any nominations?


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