Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

Stated Choice Models for Predicting the Impact of User Fees at Public Recreation Sites

Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

Stated Choice Models for Predicting the Impact of User Fees at Public Recreation Sites

Article excerpt


Faced with shrinking dollars for managing recreation sites, public land agencies are looking more and more to user fees to raise the funds needed to maintain and improve sites and facilities. In 1996, Congress authorized a 4-year demonstration program to test the effectiveness of using recreation fees for maintaining facilities and enhancing visitor services and wildlife habitat at sites managed by 4 federal agencies: the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the USDA Forest Service. By the end of 1997 more than 200 individual fee demonstration projects had been initiated by these agencies (Recreational Fee Demonstration Program, 1998).

An important question in the implementation of fee programs is how various levels and types of fees will affect people's decisions about whether and how often to visit particular sites. Common sense indicates that if fees are raised high enough people will reduce their use of the site. It is not necessarily easy to anticipate, however, how high fees can be raised before significant impacts on use will occur, or how those impacts will vary across sites and across users. To further complicate matters, increases in fees may have indirect effects on use, since they may lead to other changes at a site. Some of these changes may be planned as part of the fee implementation program, as when fee revenues are used to improve maintenance and upgrade facilities. Other changes may be less deliberate. For example, the social character of the site (types of users, types of activities, length of stay, and so on) may change as people alter their visitation patterns and activities in response to the fees. Changes such as these may have further effects on people's choices, either augmenting or offsetting the direct effects of fees per se.

Initial evaluations of the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program suggest that the fee levels implemented in demonstration projects so far may not be having a great effect on visitation. In a survey of visitors to National Forests near Los Angeles, 39 percent of the respondents said that the fee program would not impact their amount of use of the forests, while only 16 percent said it would (Gable et al. 1997). One year after the fee demonstration program began, visitation data compiled from demonstration sites did not provide any clear evidence that fees had caused overall decreases in use. The National Park Service did report, however, that the sites most likely to experience decreased use included lesser known sites with low levels of visitation and sites used mostly by surrounding communities (Recreational Fee Demonstration Program, 1998).

It is too early to know whether these findings will still hold at the end of the 4-year demonstration period. In any case, whether or not the fees implemented during the demonstration program have a discernible impact on visitation rates overall, managers still need to be able to anticipate how future changes in fees and consequent changes in other attributes at particular types of sites are likely to impact people's choices about where and how often to recreate.

One research method that may be helpful in addressing this question is recreation site choice modeling. The purpose of this paper is to describe an approach to choice modeling that has been applied to several different types of recreation sites, and to explain how it can be used to anticipate the impacts of recreation fees on people's choices of sites. Selected results from two recreation site choice models will be presented to illustrate the kinds of information that choice models can yield about the impact of fees. Limitations on the use of these models will be discussed, and some directions for future research efforts will be suggested for creating recreation choice models that are better able to address the implications of imposing fees at recreation sites.

General Approach to Choice Modeling

In general, choice models assume that people base their choices of which recreation sites to visit on the attributes (i. …

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