How We Pay to Play: Funding Outdoor Recreation on Public Lands in the 21st Century

It’s a good time to think about this, when at least one Presidential candidate (sigh.. does the silly season have to start so early?) wants to make National Park visits free.  Another idea (not proposed by any candidates that I know of) would be to charge non-residents more, as they are not paying taxes for the parks (and to discourage plane travel and other carbon-using aspects of international tourism?).

Here’s a link to the report, authored by Tate Watkins of PERC. I think the basic point is that funds that are dependent on users are invariant to partisan bickering and suchlike, so are more dependable and also as visitation goes up, the relevant funding would go up directly.

For the Parks:

More recently, after nearly three decades of relatively flat visitation that began in the late 1980s, visits to the park system have surged since 2013, increasing by 16 percent in just five years. The uptick is likely due to various factors, including the park service’s centennial celebration in 2016 as well as the rise of outdoor recreation generally. In 2016 and 2017, systemwide visitation reached all-time highs of nearly 331 million visits, before falling to 318 million visits in 2018. Even with the overall decline last year, 28 individual sites set new visitation records.[14]

Not specifically mentioned in the report is increased international tourism to US Parks, discussed here . It’s a little confusing because sometimes they are talking about totals, and sometimes about percentages of international travelers who visit Parks and Monuments.

And about the Forest Service:

Forest Service

The Forest Service manages more than 190 million acres of land for multiple uses such as timber management, livestock grazing, wildlife and fish habitat, and recreation.[22] National forests provide ample outdoor recreation opportunities, from hiking, biking, and horseback riding to hunting, dirt biking, and camping. The Forest Service manages approximately 30,000 developed recreation sites nationwide.[23] The agency faces a deferred maintenance backlog of its own of nearly $5.5 billion, including $279 million in unfunded trail repairs.[24]

According to visitor surveys conducted by the agency, visitation to national forests has remained relatively steady over the past decade. In 2016, there were an estimated 148 million recreation visits to national forests.[25]

That (has remained relatively steady) does not match my observations. Maybe some places are going down in use, other places are increasing and the average is the same? Maybe NVUM is not accurate? What are you all’s observations?

7 thoughts on “How We Pay to Play: Funding Outdoor Recreation on Public Lands in the 21st Century”

  1. According to the Desmog Blog (

    The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), formerly the Political Economy Research Center, is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that promotes Free Market Environmentalism (FME), which it describes as “an approach to environmental problems that focuses on improving environmental quality using property rights and markets.”

    PERC was founded over 30 years ago in Bozeman, Montana, where it began as a think tank where “scholars documented how government regulation and bureaucracy often led to environmental degradation.” The organization’s latest development is the “PERC University” campus where “scholars, journalists, policy makers, and environmental practitioners can come together to share knowledge, refine their work, and engage in robust discussion” about free market environmentalism.

    Terry Anderson, former president of the PERC, was a previous member of George W. Bush’s presidential campaign environmental advisory staff, as was former PERC fellow Gale Norton. In 1998, Kathryn Ratte of PERC, addressed the Petroleum Association of America on how to get their message into public schools. She said that “politically correct environmentalism invaded U.S. public classrooms years ago, and is helping to hold the door shut on your message.”

    The PERC has long advocated for the privatization of America’s national parks, and recently (as of 2015) has pushed for no more national parks.

    PERC has received significant funding from Koch Foundations and related organizations, as well as from the fossil fuel industry and Donors Trust, a group that has been called the “dark-money ATM” of the conservative movement by Mother Jones.

    Stance on Climate Change

    Former PERC President and Executive Director Terry Anderson has published a number of Op-Eds and articles putting forward his views on climate change. For example:

    “Neanderthals survived many periods of abrupt climate change […] If they survived and adapted to abrupt climate change, surely modern man ought to be able to adapt to long-term changes, provided government climate policies don’t stifle human progress and economic growth.”

    The following is taken from a 2010 PERC Report titled “The Case Against the Hockey Stick” by Matt Ridley:

    “Of course, there is other evidence for global warming, but none of it proves that the recent warming is unprecedented. Indeed, quite the reverse: surface temperatures, sea levels, tree lines, glacier retreats, summer sea ice extent in the Arctic, early spring flowers, bird migration, droughts, floods, storms—they all show change that is no different in speed or magnitude from other periods, like 1910–1940, at least as far as can be measured. There may be something unprecedented going on in temperature, but the only piece of empirical evidence that actually says so—yes, the only one—is the hockey stick. […] And the hockey stick is wrong.”


    The PERC website states that “We rely entirely on contributions from foundations, corporations, and private individuals. Currently, 90 percent of our funding comes from foundations, 8 percent from individuals and miscellaneous sources, and 2 percent from corporations.”

    The following data has been compiled by the Conservative Transparency project, based on public filings from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Note that not all funding data has been verified by DeSmogBlog for accuracy. PERC currently runs as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization with EIN 81-0393444.

    Donor Total Amount

    Dunn’s Foundation for the Advancement of Right Thinking $3,806,500
    Searle Freedom Trust $3,204,000
    Earhart Foundation $2,256,271
    Sarah Scaife Foundation $2,217,000
    John M. Olin Foundation $640,775
    The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation $603,600
    Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation $463,144
    Pierre F. and Enid Goodrich Foundation $445,000
    Castle Rock Foundation $272,000
    William H. Donner Foundation $269,750
    The Roe Foundation $250,000
    The Carthage Foundation $250,000
    DonorsTrust $211,250
    Walton Family Foundation $178,700
    Chase Foundation of Virginia $151,540
    Jaquelin Hume Foundation $150,000
    Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation $140,000
    Exxon Mobil $127,500
    The Randolph Foundation $105,000
    John William Pope Foundation $105,000
    Adolph Coors Foundation $100,000
    Philip M. McKenna Foundation $75,000
    JM Foundation $55,000
    Robert P. Rotella Foundation $47,500
    Armstrong Foundation $33,500
    True Foundation $4,500
    Ruth & Lovett Peters Foundation $3,000
    Friedman Foundation For Educational Choice $1,000

    Grand Total $16,166,530

  2. Interesting, but how is that relevant to this report? As someone who researches and presents on this topic frequently, I found the content in this report to be accurate and informative on a serious issue. There was no “spin” and the sources relied on were mainstream sources. The issue highlighted is more of us are recreating, that brings impacts, Federal land management and state budgets for recreation are flat or declining and are not keeping up with those impacts. See current debates about deferred maintenance and mandatory LWCF spending. The report looks briefly at some other funding options that states are using, the long-term success of significant funds from the excise taxes that hunters and fishers pay and notes LWCF has promise of big dollars but is subject to politics, limiting its reliability. (I would add that you can’t use LWCF to build trails, maintain roads or fix the sewer at a Park. Should some of a mandatory LWCF go to the vital but unsexy issue of maintaining what we have to support our increased use?) No solution is offered in the PERC report, but the roll-up of this information in one place is useful to get us, agencies, OR companies and elected officials talking about the issue with some good data in front of us.

  3. I followed the link to the report itself and have to admit, I thought it well written and thorough.

    Matthew thanks for all of your background info on the org, it’s funding, and it’s employees. Being a liberal person myself I keep an open mind regarding politics and philosophy. I look at the ideas before me, and try to disregard who they might have worked for in the past etc.

    I read and skimmed my way along, looking at the graphs and eventually wondering where it was all headed. I have to disagree with their conclusions that the “user pays” method is a good one. Pittman Robertson (PR) excise taxes are increasingly paid not by sportsmen but by recreational shooters, those folks that many wish to drive off public lands. Increasingly the wildlife that the public wants funds spent on are non game, not really endangered, charismatic predators.

    There’s also an uninspiring history of suborned PR funds. Wildlife agencies join with State Parks or Divisions of Conservation, and though funding is supposed to be separate there is leakage in the form of bureaucrats working for both agencies or studies and programs that only peripherally benefit sportsmen.

    In the mid 90s after a scandal, rules for funding changed and tightened. An anti hunting whacked environmentalist was put in charge of USFWS and she gave huge bonuses to friends, paid for European junkets, funded anti hunting groups, etc. The investigation ended with new rules for appropriating money and no charges were ever made.

    I heard an interview with Andrew Wang today on NPR (a second tier candidate that wants universal basic income as well as many other things which he lists in detail at his web site) and he said he’d like to see a vastly expanded Forest Service. I would too. The linked article talks mostly about trials and the recreation industry. Our forests themselves might well stand to see some work done, and it’s the kind of work that isn’t profitable. I’d also like to see an end to all access fees or user fees. Except as suggested fees for foreigners. I paid an exorbitant amount (for me) to go hiking in the Yulong Xueshan National Park (Naxi autonomous region Yunnan PRC) in the dead of winter when I think the yearly foreign visitation was about 20 people. Likewise at Koh Samet and other things nominally called Parks in Thailand that are chock a block full of resort hotels.

    Charge a carbon fee for all visitors who arrive by air, but otherwise fund all of our public lands just like we do everything else. Our lands should be more than recreation backdrops for the well to do. Employ only Park or Forest Service employees, get rid of all concessions. Good clean healthy work, and taking care of our valuable lands.

    Enough ranting.

  4. Thanks for that explanation Matt. I was concerned that your comment might put people off reading the Report, thinking it was comprised information. My point was that I know the subject area and think this is a valuable addition to this important discussion.

    • People can read, and write, whatever they want as far as I’m concerned. To a certain extent I do agree with Sharon that where who funds groups is a piece of information that individuals should consider, or not.

      It is quite clear that the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), gets a lot of funding from far-right wing sources that have a long track record over many decades of trying to undermine America’s bedrock environmental laws, privatize public lands, increase resource exploitation from public lands, etc.

  5. Matthew, thanks for helping me think through what the differences are in my mind. As to the DeSmog blog, here is what another site says about them
    It’s pretty hard for us folks to figure out who is who and what is what on our own.

    My point is that I posted what PERC has to say, but I don’t agree with all of it, as I pointed out, so I wanted to start the discussion. I am particularly mystified by the idea that there hasn’t been an increase in FS visits. Certainly along the Front Range of Colorado, my personal experience says that is not the case.

    As to the user pays idea, it does make sense to me that a poor person in Hackensack shouldn’t be funding a rich person’s travel to Yellowstone. Just the lodging, food etc. is more than many people can afford. I’m also curious about the peculiar nature of funding different government levels of parks. For example where I used to live in the Denver area, we had free hiking at county open spaces, pay to play State Parks, free Forest Service and pay to play National Parks. With the idea of free National Parks, then State Parks would be the only level to charge? How does that fit with the recreation industry’s importance to our economy.. they are generating beaucoup bucks but only OHV people and hunters pay for their use? I’m just trying to think about equity concerns across industries, kinds of recreationists, and taxpayers who don’t use the sites.

    What you’ve made me think about is that we all know about PERC and their funders. What I have tried to focus on are groups who are not the “usual players.” It seems to be that many of the groups with the most outrageous claims are recently established, and seem to be mouthpieces for partisan vitriol with a veneer of interest in federal lands policy. PERC to me is more like Headwaters, with a known and obvious bias, but worthy of considering their work and point of view, even when it seems silly.


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