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Congressman Proposes Overhaul To Fee Programs On National Parks, Other Public Lands

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It could get more expensive to enjoy your public lands -- national parks, national forests, and BLM landscapes -- under legislation introduced to Congress/Lee Dalton

Legislation introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives could, if enacted as drafted, require the National Park Service to determine "a nationally consistent entrance fee policy and corresponding rate structure" for the 401 units of the National Park System, a potentially sweeping requirement that seemingly could generate tens of millions of additional dollars for the parks.

The legislation, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah and introduced to the House this past Friday, comes as the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act teeters on the brink of sunsetting. Congress last fall extended the Act, which governs recreational fees the federal government can charge on public lands, through the end of 2015.

Under the Act, the federal land-management agencies are permitted to sell the so-called America the Beautiful Pass that allows entry into lands that charge entrance fees, as well as charge fees for a growing range of activities. The Act has been criticized as a way for land managers to offset diminishing federal budget revenues with more and more fees on things like interpretive programs, backcountry fees, camping fees, and boating fees. It also has been reviled as a "pay to play" system for public lands, or a "rat tax"  -- recreation access tax.

At the same time, the Interior Department promotes the Act as enabling "federal land management agencies to provide quality recreation experiences for hundreds of millions of visitors every year to some of America'™s most scenic, iconic, awe-inspiring, historical, and culturally rich lands and resources."

Far and away, according to the Interior report, the National Park Service benefits most from the revenue stream, receiving $172.4 million in Fiscal Year 2011. The U.S. Forest Service stood second in revenues, with $64.9 million.

Currently, 133 of the 401 units of the park system have entrance fees. Rep. Bishop's legislation seemingly could change that by requiring the Interior secretary to develop a "nationally consistent entrance fee policy and corresponding rate structure..."

However, there was some uncertainty as to whether the legislation would indeed require entrance fees for all units of the National Park System. Emily Douce, a budget and appropriations specialist with the National Parks Conservation Association, said Sunday night that it was her understanding that the intent, despite the lack of guidance or restrictions in the legislation's language, was not to force entrance fees across the board but to ensure that parks with similar amenities -- campgrounds, restroom facilities, picnic areas, for example -- charged similar fees.

Ms. Douce, working with the National Parks Second Century Action Coalition, a group formed a year ago to promote the protection and operation of the parks, acknowledged, though, that the legislation on its face could be read to mean the Park Service would have to establish rates for all units of the system.

The Coalition is fully supportive of the legislation, applauding Rep. Bishop "for introduing important legislation that would allow national parks and other federal lands to continue to retain the fees they collect in order to enhance recreational opportunities for visitors."

"Congressman Bishop's legislation helps preserve a vital part of the funding stream for our national parks and other federal lands," Craig Obey, NPCA's senior vice president and chair of the Coalition, said in a prepared statement to be released Monday. "The Coalition will continue to work with Congress to make adjustments to the bill as it moves through the legislative process."

"I guess the Congress of 2014 has decided that public lands are nothing more than revenue generators for the agencies, not places where all Americans have access and feel welcome. It's the end of our federal public lands system (FS & BLM) as we have known it. Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot are rolling in their graves." -- Kitty Benzar.

The legislation calls for the price of the America the Beautiful Pass, currently $80 a year, to be recalculated every three years "to reflect the change in the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers over the same period..." The $10 lifetime pass for senior citizens, the free pass given to permanently disabled citizens, and free passes for active U.S. military members, would remain under the current version of the legislation.

Rep. Bishop also would restrict sales of the America the Beautiful passes to U.S. citizens and permanent residents, a move that likely would prove unpopular with international travelers who come to the United States to see a number of national parks on one visit.

"I guess all those international visitors will be paying full freight. Wonder how that might affect visitation at parks where they make up a large percentage of visitors?" Kitty Benzar, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition that long has fought fee creep on public lands, told the Traveler in an email Sunday. "But hey, they don't vote, so who cares about them?"

The bill also includes provisions that would make it more costly to visit national forests and Bureau of Land Management landscapes.

"The bill would remove all protections for Americans to have basic access to their National Forests and BLM lands," said Ms. Benzar. "The prohibitions currently in place against fees solely for parking, for general access, for camping outside of developed campgrounds, for scenic overlooks, all of that would be repealed. We would be back to the anything-goes days of unlimited fee authority that we had under Fee Demo, and against which the American public spoke up loud and clear, which is why the Congress in 2004 put those prohibitions in there.

"I guess the Congress of 2014 has decided that public lands are nothing more than revenue generators for the agencies, not places where all Americans have access and feel welcome. It's the end of our federal public lands system (FS & BLM) as we have known it. Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot are rolling in their graves."

The legislation would allow the Park Service to charge a fee for shuttle bus operations, such as those at Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, though the cost would be capped at the amount charged for entrance to the park unit in question. While the legislation does permit fees for interpretive programs, it specifies that "before the Secretary may charge a fee for interpretive programs, the Secretary shall identify basic interpretive programs and services, including tours required to provide basic visitor access to a primary resource in a unit, that will be provided free of charge.'™'™

The measure also would allow the Park Service to charge fees for recreation on public lands and waters "when the Secretary determines that the visitor uses a specific or specialized facility, equipment, or service..."

Under Rep. Bishop's proposal, at least 90 percent of the collected fees, up from the current 80 percent benchmark, would remain with the unit of the park system where it was collected for use. However, before any new fees, or fee increases, could be instituted, this legislation would require Congress to approve them.

Overall, said Ms. Benzar, "There is nothing good in this bill for the public, only for the federal bureaucrats in the agencies. They got everything they wanted and then some. I will be doing everything in my power to stop this from passing."  

The House Natural Resources Committee is expected to review the bill Wednesday.

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Can anyone provide a link to a "plain language" version of how the proposed fee bill (H.R. 5204.IH) would actually read once all of Bishop's changes were applied?  It's very difficult to understand the full impacts of Bishop's proposals without printing out both the existing law and his proposed changes, comparing them line by line, and then making all of the revisions - a very tedious process that discourages thoughtful analysis.

Here's an example of just one small section of the bill under discussion:


(a) Use of Fees at Specific Site or Area- Section 808(a) (16 U.S.C. 6807(a)) is amended--

(1) by redesignating paragraphs (2) and (3) as paragraphs (4) and (5), respectively;

(2) by inserting after paragraph (1) the following new paragraph:

`(2) shall be used to develop and enhance existing recreation opportunities;

`(3) shall directly benefit visitors to Federal recreational lands and waters;'; and

(3) in paragraph (5), as redesignated by paragraph (1)--

(A) in subparagraph (A), by inserting `visitor' before `health'; and

(B) by striking subparagraph (E) and inserting the following new subparagraph:

`(E) capital construction costs associated with administering the recreation fee program; and'. "

This is a good example of why legislation can have unintended consequences. It should be a requirement that every bill that is introduced include a plain language version of the final product, after all additions and deletions to the previous law have been applied. Perhaps that already exists, but I haven't located it.

I agree with Jim Burnett. Especially with Jim's first and last paragraph, But would put a subparagraph in the last paragraph; should be clear as mud.

I'm curious where the Organic Act directs the NPS " to enhance recreational opportunities for visitors"?

My understanding is fee monies can't be used for 'operations', so it seems these revenues can only be spent on development, further worsening the NPS's disgraceful multi-billion dollar maintenance backlog.

During my career in the so-called Maintenance Division, at least a third of the work we did was development and actual maintenance was a much lower priority.


Oh boy, here we go.  And a republican no less introduces this.  Well here is a simple fact.  Public lands entrance fees decrease access to public lands.  Period.  The goal of the NPS is to promote the unimpaired enjoyment of public lands.  This will create an inpairment that decreases access to public lands by taxpayers.  There is a part of me that takes a wry joy in seeing dayhikers who will potentially share the burden we backpackers now saddle.  It will eliminate the hypocrisay of folks here who think they should get a "free ride" to hike, fish and photograph for personal financial gain on public lands while the rest pay for them.  But like Kitty said, it just opens the door for more NPS bureaucratic malfeasance.  Any sensible taxpayer should contact their represenatives and voice opposition to this absurdity.   I'm sure Jarvis is laughing all the way to the bank today.  Folks forget that in these lean economic times, the NPS budgets have actually increased.  How many folks here have seen their budgets increase in the past ten years?  I haven't.  When an agency can't make do with their increases, then its time to replace mgmt with someone who can  eliminate unnecessary programs and quit paving roads that don't need paving.  (That is a problem here in the Smokies where they claim 9 million visitors but that is a false number.  9 million folks drive Newfound Gap road and about 8 million never leave their cars because it is the main thoroughfare between the casino in Cherokee and Dollywood and the ko kart tracks in Gatlinburg, the armpit of TN.)  It is a number they misuse to scream for funds so Blalock construction in Sevier county can crank up the asphalt machines again.  Follow the money and you will see that they are the halliburton of the Smokies.

But if they institute these fees, then trailhead parking and backcountry and wedding fees should be entirely eliminated.  Any fool who believes that will happen needs to support it.    I"ve got an idea.  How about folks who use services pay for them?  Since the visitor centers are so expensive, how about charging to enter one?  The electricity on the donated Oconoluftee visitor center is over $1500 per month.  The NPS told the GSMA they had to pay for that in perpetuity after the GSMA donated that facility.  Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth, this is the NPS at work.  Giving more money to an agency that operates in this fashion is like giving car keys to a drunken teenager. 


The is a boring argument from those who think everything should be free.  The NPS receives over $2 BILLION per year to fund the national park system.  It does not seem unreasonable to ask those who visit to pay a TINY part of funding the cost of providing the SERVICE that they have the opportunity to take advantage of. (NPS collects only 90 million in entrance fees) When you talk about the cost driving people away, I have seen the research, specifically the NPS comprehensive study of the American public and many others and there is no clear link to visitation and entrance fees.  In fact the comprehensive study lists many things that drive visitors away, having to plan (make reservations) to far in advance, distance from the parks, overall trip cost, not interested in parks, etc.  Recreation fees never even make the list.  If you want to encourage visitation, build additional lodging and campgrounds to increase supply to drive prices from hundreds of $ per night and make it easier for people to make reservations.  Use the fees to create new recreation opportunities that people are looking for, that’s how you encourage visitation. 


As far as Kitty's argument of a fee “free for all”, congress now requires approval of every new fee or increase, what better way to limit fees, pass a law each time.  Kurt your anti fee bias is clearing showing.  Almost every group from NPCA to the Wilderness Society generally supports user fees as a way to bring much needed revenue to the public lands.  Without it, (there will be no increase in funding from congress) you can be sure that recreation opportunities and visits to federal lands will decrease, as agencies lack the funds to provide the services and amenities that visitors require and want.  


You folks kill me with your undocumented assertions.  Here is proof that entrance fees decrease access and use of public lands.

And as far as accusing this magazine of a bias, why don't you start reading what Kurt published the other day about proposing entrance fees to the NPS. Is that the language of someone who is entirely anti fee?



As polarizing as the extreme blacks and whites on this issue are, it would be interesting to see how a compromising gray path could be charted between them. I don't have that solution; I just wish for it.

AWishfulParkUser--First, you are patently and maybe even blatantly unfair to Kurt R. He strives, and does so in a way the mainstream media would do well to emulate, to be fair. I think if you do a careful screening of his editorials over the months,it will become abundantly clear that accusing him of an anti-fee bias is inaccurate.

Beyond that, what this boils down to is one more (of many) examples of bureaucratic bloat. If we, as taxpayers, were not already underwriting the operations of the NPS it would be different. As for the endless litany of complaints from NPS bureaucrats to the effect "we need more money," that would not be the case if they utilized appropriated funds in a better fashion. Anyone with intimate familiarity with the NPS (and it holds true for HHS, ATF, the VA, or about any other federal bureaucracy you wish to mention) surely has to realize that there are far too many employees who do precious little (and that is not to demean many others who are conscientious and capable).

The simple fact of the matter is that the entire culture of the NPS has changed dramatically in the last two decades and, on top of that, there is far, far too much coziness between NPS bigwigs and politicians. That can be readily documented and has been in a number of books.

This reeks of yet another money grab and I see precious little good coming out of it.

Jim Casada

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