Pay to Play: A Rationale for User Fees

By Johnson, Randy | American Forests, March-April 1991 | Go to article overview

Pay to Play: A Rationale for User Fees


Johnson, Randy, American Forests


1987 ice storm in the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia sent thousands of trees crashing down across some of the East's most popular hiking trails. It took years to clear what "looked like a war zone," says Nantahala National Forest district ranger Ronnie Raum. "If it hadn't been for volunteers, the trails would still be closed. In essence, the district didn't have a trail budget. "

The last 15 years have brought a stream of similar complaints from federal, state, and local park managers. Many feel hopelessly unable to maintain current facilities, much less expand. Forest Service estimates predict a doubling of demand for forest recreation activities like hiking, backpacking, and developed camping between now and the year 2040.

Will there ever be a way out of the funding dilemma?

In the last decade, sentiment has grown for entrance charges and user fees as a means of helping restore recreation funding mangled by budget deficits. Research consistently backs up what recreation officials in fee areas have known for years: The public is willing to pay.

At times, illustrations of that contention can be startling. Last summer, a car pulled up to a Skyline Drive entrance at Shenandoah National Park, and a young man held out the $5 entrance fee to the Park Service toll taker. Noticing an elderly woman beside the driver, the attendant waved the money back and said, "If your guest is over 62, you both get in free."

"I'll be glad to pay," the visitor replied, sounding disappointed.

"You'd be surprised how many times that happens," says Shenandoah ranger Jeanie Mitchell. "We get people here who really feel that their money is supporting a safe haven, both for wildlife and people from the city."

Nevertheless, fee advocates are frustrated. Recreation fees, especially on the federal level, are an idea whose time is coming-but never seems to arrive.

Some movement has occurred, but the trend to new or increased recreation fees for national parks and national forests is "going so slowly, it's almost imperceptible at this point," says Ken Cordell, The public favors recreation fees as long as they result in facilities like this ski hut near Aspen, Colorado. a project leader in recreation research at the Southeastern Forest Experiment Station in Athens, Georgia.

The biggest recent event in the fee arena came with passage of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987. This law amended the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, raising recreation fees for a number of agencies, including the National Park Service and Forest Service, and placing the revenues in special Treasury accounts instead of the general fund. Except for the National Park Service, those funds are appropriated back to the agencies for "activities related to resource protection" at outdoor recreation areas.

In 1989, the Bush Administration undertook an additional effort to amend the Land and Water Conservation Fund, this time to permit the Forest Service to spend money for "operation

. .and management of recreation facilities." This proposed law was never introduced, but it would have created new user and entrance fees at some less developed camping and picnicking areas, boat launch sites, managed parking lots, and specified developed recreation areas. Instead, the Forest Service shifted focus to another bill, says Gene Zimmerman, legislative affairs staffer for the agency. This new legislation was approved by the House but rejected by the Senate. Had it passed, it would have set up a test on 12 national forests to see whether recreation fees could offset the loss of revenue if the agency were to end below-cost timber sales, which have drawn fire as a waste of taxpayer money. The bill would also have allocated $10 million to create new recreational opportunities in forests where below cost sales were ended. The agency wanted to determine whether the resulting recreation revenue would match the money generated by timber, both in terms of the 25 percent of timber revenue returned to county governments and the remaining 75 percent that goes to the U.

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Pay to Play: A Rationale for User Fees
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