How to Improve Our Federal Parks

Article excerpt

A change is taking place across the American landscape. Hikers, climbers, and picnickers are finding a way to promote better care of our resources: They are paying to play.

Until recently, Americans paid almost nothing for recreational access to federal lands. Yet such "free" recreation has meant poor recreation: eroding roads, leaking sewer systems, and cutbacks of visitor services. It costs money to maintain and protect our lands for recreational use. Americans are beginning to realize that, if resources are not managed, the opportunities for outdoor recreation and the quality of outdoor experiences decline severely.

Congress has begun to explore alternative methods of funding. Under the experimental Fee Demonstration Program, Congress allows agencies to charge higher fees and to keep most of these fees where they are collected--rather than sending them to the national treasury. Four agencies--the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Forest Service--are trying new entrance and user fees on some of their units, and each park or area is allowed to keep at least 80% of the fee receipts.

This article argues that realistic recreation fees on public lands are necessary if our federal agencies are to provide the quality of recreation that Americans expect from their national treasures.

A great deal of federally owned land is used for recreation. Although the National Park Service, which controls 83 million acres, is the organization most people identify with federally provided outdoor recreation, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have more acreage and receive more recreational visitors. These lands cover 455 million acres and accept about one billion visitors each year, according to governmental estimates, compared to 290 million visits in our national parks.

Problems with the Current System. The current system, funded by taxpayers and allocated by Congress, has had a detrimental impact on public lands. It has led to poor maintenance, excessive spending, and neglect of natural resources, and it has strangled the private provision of recreation.

Poor Maintenance. The National Park Service reports a $6 billion backlog of unfunded maintenance projects. The Forest Service has serious maintenance problems, too. News reports have identified deficiencies such as the following:

* Yellowstone's outmoded sewer system spews raw sewage into native trout streams, and the sewage treatment plant at Old Faithful pollutes the groundwater.

* Glacier National Park's popular Going-to-the-Sun Road is frequently closed due to safety concerns.

* Prehistoric dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park are disintegrating from a buildup of oils and airborne particles.

* More than one quarter of the National Park Service's buildings are in poor or dilapidated condition.

* With a road system of 373,000 miles, eight times the interstate highway system, the Forest Service has a road maintenance backlog in excess of $8.5 billion, with funding adequate to maintain only 40% of the roads to planned standards.

* According to Dick Paterson, deputy director of recreation for the Forest Service, the agency has a backlog of $1.7 billion in unfunded recreational maintenance.

Extravagant Spending. In spite of these backlogs, public land managers spend money unwisely and even extravagantly. The National Park Service provides some vivid examples.

* At Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, one famous outhouse cost $333,000. It has a gabled slate roof, cottage-style porches, and a tapered cobblestone masonry foundation in the fashion of Frank Lloyd Wright. But the doors are locked in the winter because this self-composting toilet won't work in Pennsylvania's freezing temperatures. And don't expect any running water; there is none.

* In 1997 in Yosemite National Park the average cost of new employee housing was $580,000 per unit--two to four times the average rate for local housing. …