Fee vs Free


Yours truly testifying about recreation fees together with long-time friend and Cato scholar Randal O’Toole

This week a House natural resources subcommittee heard testimony regarding the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA). FLREA, which became law in 2004, will expire in 2014 unless reauthorized, leaving federal land management agencies without legal authority to charge recreation fees.

My crystal ball predicts that Congress will reauthorize FLREA before it expires, but limit fee authority to highly developed sites only (e.g., campgrounds, RV hook-ups) and national parks entry.  I don’t expect the Forest Service’s and BLM’s existing “standard amenity fee” authority to survive congressional scrutiny. The agencies’ experiment with dispersed recreation fees began in 1996 with “fee demo” and has proven controversial, especially with local, rural residents accustomed to casual recreation access to their federal land backyards.  In 2012, the Ninth Circuit court took the Forest Service to the woodshed for abusing FLREA’s dispersed recreation fee authorities.

9 thoughts on “Fee vs Free”

  1. Which will mean fewer recreation staff, less maintenance and more facility/area closures. All of which would be a regrettable regression.

    Part of making FS recreation “sustainable” (as noted last month by Sharon) is having a sustainable funding stream. If it’s not going to be appropriated by Congress and it can’t come from fees… where does it come from?

    • And I appreciate the idea that Congress would increase appropriations by the amount of fees lost, but… is it realistic to think that Congress would do so with its current political makeup?

  2. Andy, I regretfully have to object to your inaccurate description of Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center in your testimony.

    “At the Mendenhall Glacier visitor center… Even while the visitor center’s facilities are often overwhelmed with cruise boat tourists who experience less-than-clean bathrooms and the discourtesy of having to pay to enter what is predominately a commercial gift shop.”

    MGVC cannot be fairly described as “predominantly a commercial gift shop” — that is simply not honest. The Alaska Geographic bookstore takes up perhaps 15 percent of the public floor space of the center, in a section that was originally designed as a commercial space — when the center was built in 1962 and for many years after that, that area was a locally-famous restaurant/pie shop. The original observatory area and 1990s-built exhibit hall/auditorium expansion are much, much larger than the bookstore and provide a wide variety of exhibits, an HD film and frequent live ranger/interpreter programs.

    A fairly accurate floor plan of the center can be seen here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mytravelphotos/7901254682/ — the bookstore is confined to the marked “sales area” along with cash registers at the information desk. As should be obvious, there is no way that the center can fairly be described as “predominantly a commercial gift shop.”

    Furthermore, bookstore entry *is free* — nobody is charged for using any of the restrooms or entering the bookstore sales area. Only those visitors wanting to go beyond the information desk into the observatory, exhibit hall or auditorium must pay the fee.

    Yes, the building is too small. I absolutely agree that the two sets of available restrooms (one outside, one inside) are cramped. (On peak days, the contracted janitorial service cleans them twice daily and it still wasn’t enough.) The center was not designed to handle its current visitation of ~450,000 visitors every summer. More capital investment is needed to expand restroom capacity and perhaps the building itself. Those are accurate, constructive observations that ought to be addressed. It’s unfortunate that you chose to embellish those true and important issues by throwing in a needless shot that doesn’t do justice to the managers or staff at MGVC.

    • I agree with Travis..I was an RVer (truck camper) visitor who came on the ferry and camped at the FS campground in 2011. My impression was that it was a high quality experience for a Forest Service visitor center, crowded, yes but not any more commercial than any other visitors’ center. PS the bathrooms were clean when we were there.

  3. What I don’t understand is your use of “dispersed recreation fees” and “standard amenity fees” interchangeably. I would assume it reflects a carelessness in crafting your post, rather than ignorance of one of the basic requirements of FLREA. A standard amenity site, as written in the law, must have the 6 amenities (permanent toilet, trash service, developed parking, interpretation, picnic table, security). There is no charge for dispersed recreation on National Forest lands; well over 90% of NFS lands are free for use by everyone. The lawsuit you refer to was specific to High Impact Recreation Areas, which are few and far between (I think there are only 2 in all of Oregon/Washington).

    I only watched the 5 minutes of testimony (at about 1:03 for anyone else what wants to watch it), and while I appreciate your last 2 seconds urging Congress to replace lost fee revenue with appropriate dollars, I find it laughable that you think that would happen in this Congress, and would be sustained over the long run. We are already running bare bones operations, with the impacts of declining budgets and then sequester. And once Secure Rural Schools funding goes away, that’ll be another significant hit for many recreation programs (especially in your back yard, Andy).

    One potential irony if Andy’s prediction comes true is further privatization of recreation sites. While I’ve always had mixed feelings about the concessionaire program, this is a year I’m grateful that all of the major campgrounds on my forest are concession operated and therefore protected from sequester impacts. If we lose the ability to charge Standard Amenity Fees, it wouldn’t be surprising to me if Forests start to look at concessionaires to operate the developed day use sites, where many Recreation Passes would no longer be honored.

    • Since the only dispersed recreation fee on national forests is FLREA’s standard amenity fee, ipso facto, I must have used the terms as synonyms.

      Perhaps, Rec Guy, you could answer a question several have asked of me. How much revenue does the Willamette NF (as it is in my backyard) earn annually from standard amenity fees alone? I’ve had no success finding that number on-line, nationally, regionally, or for individual NFs.

      • There is nothing in FLREA that refers to dispersed recreation except when it’s listed where fees are prohibited (Sec 3, d, 1, C – available here: http://www.fs.fed.us/passespermits/fee-legislation-text.shtml). Standard amenity fees are only permitted in highly developed recreation sites. FLREA is very different than the 1996 Fee Demo, which allowed the FS to charge fees at trailheads that had no amenities and probably could have been considered a dispersed recreation fee. Even then, “casual recreation access to their federal land backyards” was still mostly free, and is even more so now under FLREA.

        This may seem like a silly semantic argument, but all FS recreation folks I’ve worked with try very, very hard to do right by FLREA and only charge in highly developed (standard amenity) sites, and we try to be very clear that dispersed recreation is free.

        As for standard amenity fee revenue, you’re right, that’s not easily available online – the annual fee reports lump all the recreation fees together (standard amenity and expanded amenity fees). I’ll ask around whether SAF revenues are easily accessible for any particular forest.

  4. I too have issues with the testimony of Andy, Kitty, and others since they really don’t address the reason fees are now needed but merely play the amenity game. Whether picnic tables are a service at trailheads or not seems to me to be an idle issue. We are counting amenities and counting the proper span of high impact recreation areas like playing a game of monopoly both in Congress and in the courts. The point is not whether FLREA is perfect. The point is not whether there are five or six amenities at a trailhead. The point is that we are losing the battle of keeping our trails open and replacing the CCC built infrastructure that is now failing, creating hazardous trails. There are now trails proposed for closure in the USFS system due to lack of maintenance. As someone who has been at this recreation work effort for 40 years, early on with the USFS as an employee and for the last couple of decades as a trail worker/volunteer, I am dismayed at what is happening. We are not keeping up with maintenance on trails, roads, campgrounds, and trailheads. A $30 annual fee is not much when you consider a volunteer spends between $50 and $200 in expenses/gas for one trip to the woods to be on one work party. Volunteers are too busy working to worry about being charged a small fee for strolling in a HIRA area without a perfect amenity count. Some victory that is!! Exploit a loophole in FLREA. Wonderful. We need help, not ideology. Better to pay fees than lose the recreational resources. This is what recreational users are facing, and double tax or not, if $30 for a USFS pass or $80 for an ATB pass can make a dent in this, then we will probably go for continuing that. Not because we want to pay fees but because we want to preserve our recreation, which is out in the field and not in an office or courtroom.

    I did use to discuss this with the late Robert Funkhouser of WSNFC, and that was when now single lane USFS roads were double land, trails were all open, campgrounds weren’t closed through the Recreation Facilities Analysis process, and trails were safe to travel on without bridges collapsing when you walked on them.

    Personally I felt the entire hearing was a waste since it is just ideology with the exception of DOI and Leslie Weldon of the USFS. I do wish Leslie had offered some ideas for improving FLREA rather than just recapping and defending it. I agree with Congressman Bishop that his staff should have had more panelists. Where were the American Recreation Coalition or NPCA, both of which have ideas on improving FLREA?


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