Fee Demo Update 4-27-04

MEMORANDUM

 

 

To:       AHC Recreation Committee

From:   Alicia Cunningham

Re:       Hearing on Fee Demo

Date:    April 27, 2004

 

 

The Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to discuss the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program and potential Permanent Multi-Agency Recreation Fee Authority.  The Recreation Fee Demonstration (Fee Demo) program started in 1996 when Congress gave the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Forest Service authority to collect fees which could be used to enhance visitor facilities and services.  This authority was not permanent, but Congress has extended the program seven times and has also lifted the initial one hundred site limit per agency.  Current authorization expires on December 31, 2005.

 

Below please find summaries of the testimony provided at the hearing:

 

The Honorable P. Lynn Scarlett, Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget, Department of the Interior

 

The Department of the Interior strongly supports a permanent, multi-agency recreation fee program.  The Department believes that the fees allow them to meet visitor demands for enhanced visitor facilities and services.  A permanent program would allow the Department to make long-term investments, streamline the program and create more partnerships.

 

If such a permanent program was established, the Department of the Interior has the following suggestions:

 

·        A permanent Recreation Fee Program should be multi-agency.  Recreational use is increasing among all agencies and visitors do not distinguish among federal land management agencies.  "Many expect to find the same amenities typically provided at National Parks, including hosted campgrounds, permanent toilet facilities, and potable drinking water," Scarlett said.

 

·        A permanent Multi-Agency Recreation Fee Program should be limited to areas that provide enhanced facilities or services.  Scarlett stated that if given permanent recreation fee authority, the Department would not charge for federal lands that do not have enhanced facilities and services. 

 

·        A permanent Multi-Agency Recreation Fee Program should provide for standardized Recreation fees, allow for the development of a streamlined pass system, and minimize fee layering.  The Department is committed to working out a system where fees "would be consistently applied across all agencies and would minimize fee layering by ensuring that the basic fee covers the primary attraction of the site" Scarlett said.  In addition, a variety of pass options have been developed, such as the Golden Eagle Pass, but the Department would like to see a multi-agency pass as well as regional multi-entity passes with a standardized package of benefits. 

 

·        A permanent Multi-Agency Recreation Fee Program should ensure that a majority of recreation fees stay at the site to enhance visitor facilities and services.  Scarlett said that "visitor support of recreation fees is strong when the fees remain at the site for reinvestment into visitor facilities and services.  We believe that this is an essential component of any permanent multi-agency recreation fee program."

 

Mr. Mark Rey, Under Secretary Natural Resources and Environment, United States Department of Agriculture

 

Mr. Rey testified that the Department of Agriculture considers the recreation fee program as "vital" to the agency's "ability to provide quality recreation facilities, settings and services."  The Forest Service Fee Demo program has generated $161 million since its inception and generated $38.7 million alone in 2003.  In addition, surveys have indicated that people accept modest fees, particularly when they knows that the fees are being used to improve the site where they are collected.

 

To improve the agency's ability to improve fee demo, the agency has developed and implemented the Blueprint for Forest Service Recreation Fees.  Rey stated that the "goal of the Blueprint is to have a consistent national policy to provide high quality recreation sites, services and settings that enhance the visitor's experience and protest natural and cultural resources."  By implementing the Blueprint, the Agency is working to make sure that fees are:

 

·        Convenient;

·        Consistent;

·        Beneficial; and

·        Accountable.

 

Rey also gave the following recommendations for any legislation which would form a permanent recreation fee program:

 

·        It should promote interagency coordination and not just be confined to certain agencies.  Mr. Rey agreed with Scarlett that visitors to public lands expect the same amenities, facilities and services as those enjoying a national park.  Rey stated that "authorization of an interagency recreation fee program would enhance coordination among agencies and create a seamless, collaborative, efficient and effective fee program that is well understood by the public.

 

·        It should establish an interagency national pass.

 

·        It should enhance partnerships with states and gateway communities.

 

·        It should establish agency site-specific and regional multi-entry passes for those visitors who only want to recreate in a certain area or state.

 

·        It should provide for a new system of basic and expanded recreation fees.

 

·        It should provide for better reporting on the use of revenues in order to ensure that the agencies are accountable to Congress and to the public.  Rey suggested that Agencies "collect good data and publish annually public documentation showing how the fee program is administered.

 

·        It should provide necessary authorities to implement the program.

 

·        It should provide criteria for accountability and control of revenues collected.  Public support will continue if the revenues are invested directly at the site where they are collected.   

 

Mr. Carl Wilgus, Treasurer of the Western States Tourism Policy Council, Idaho

 

The Western States Tourism Policy Council (WSTPC) testified in support of the recreation fee demonstration program.  Mr. Wilgus stated:

 

We believe that the hundreds of millions of dollars that has been generated by fee demo, with eighty percent retained for use at the lands where it is collected, have enabled hundreds of projects to be completed, significantly reducing the infrastructure maintenance backlog that has plagued these agencies for decades.  The result has been to improve federal lands experience for both visitors and residents.

 

The WSTPC does not support the legislation introduced by Senator Craig Thomas (R-WY) which would only apply to the National Park Service.  Mr. Wilgus stated:

 

It is imperative that authorization of fee demo includes at least all four agencies now in the program.  While the implementation problems that have manifested themselves have not occurred equally at all four agencies, the budget pressures on all four are the same.  Moreover, the visitors who use and enjoy the federal lands often do not understand or appreciate agency boundaries and it is critical that implementation of fee program be coordinated and consistent for all agencies.

 

The WSTPC even supports expanding the authority to include the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

 

Mr. Wilgus also testified that the WSTPC would like to see the following improvements in any new fee demo authorization legislation:

 

·        Reduction of layered fees where visitors are required to pay multiple fees for different services or activities at the same site;

 

·        Reduction of duplicate fees;

 

·        No fees for "dispersed recreation areas" where the benefits are not self-evident;

 

·        Reduction of "overhead" or "maintenance costs" to run to program.  More fees need to hit the ground.

 

Ms. Sue Bray, American Recreational Coalition, Washington, D.C.

 

Ms. Bray testified that the American Recreation Coalition (ARC) would not support permanent authority for the recreation fee demonstration program because the ARC believes that further experimentation and development are needed and that any legislation needs to have a six-year time limit in order to ensure accountability to Congress. 

 

Ms. Bray did testify, however, that the ARC would continue to support recreation fees if:

 

·        The fees are equitable and aimed at recovering costs where the services and facilities provided represent significant costs to American taxpayers;

 

·        The fee system is efficient and costs the least amount practical to administer;

 

·        The fee system is coherent, flexible and integrated so that there are no overlapping charges; and

 

·        The fee revenues are returned to benefit resources, facilities and program utilized by those paying the fees.

 

In addition, the ARC would like to see the following changes made in any legislation which reauthorizes the program:

 

·        Sunset provisions for fees every six years, accompanied by full Congressional oversight of the fee program as part of a reauthorization of fees and appropriate fee program modifications and program directions;

 

·        Uniformity of fee provisions for all federal agencies, including the four agencies covered under the fee demo program and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation;

 

·        Continuation of the local retention of current receipts and availability of at least 80% of collected recreation fees without any further need for appropriation, public involvement in fees establishment and use, clear and meaningful reporting on the use of the fees, operation of the fee program as fair, convenient, understandable and efficient, and assurance that the fees will not be offset by reductions in appropriations;

 

·        Limitations on automatic authority for federal recreation fees, primarily focusing on those sites where visitors receive clearly identified services and utilize specific facilities, but also providing a process for adding additional sites to the fee program where key tests, including public support, are met;

 

·        Creation of a new National Recreation Fees Advisory Board with authority to approve expanded and unusual fee sites and with authority to review fee program appeals. The Board would also be responsible for preparing annual reports on federal recreation fees. A significant number of the Board members should represent those paying fees;

 

·        Penalties for misuse of fee authority or fee receipts applicable to the line officials involved and to the fee site, including a freeze on fees and a reduction in local retention of collections from 80% to 60%;

 

·        Creation of a new recreation fee site investment account which would allow improvements prior to imposition of new or raised fees;

 

·        Investigation and support of the role of RACs in providing local oversight of the fee program;

 

·        Local retention of revenues from recreation special permits, concessions and similar agreements under clear provisions which consolidate fees now charged under such doctrines as cost recovery; and

 

·        A clear goal of quality recreation experiences – not fee revenue – as an outcome, and thus a receptivity to alternative means to provide services and facilities on federal lands through partnerships with state and local agencies, volunteers and “friends” organizations and concessioners/ permittees.

 

Mr. Robert Raney, Volunteer Director of the Montana State Parks Foundation, Livingston, Montana

 

Mr. Raney testified in opposition to recreational fees and the fee demo recreation program.  He stated that there were other options such as limiting the amount of maintenance a site needs and allowing recreational sites to maintain its natural appeal.  He testified that with fees "it becomes a vicious circle: the more the government develops its public lands – the more maintenance is required – the more fees are imposed – the fewer number of people who can enjoy these special places."

 

Mr. Raney is also opposed to fee demo on a Constitutional ground.  He said that it gives government agencies the power to tax and spend, which is a power reserved to the elected representatives of the people.  "Ceding taxation and budgeting power to the "faceless bureaucracy" will ensure continued widespread and costly abuses by agencies."

 

Mr. Raeny also testified that people in the West are protesting fee demo by no longer going to public lands at all.  "People simply quit going," he said, frustrated by the fact that the "government was stealing our heritage and selling it back to us."

 

 

Mr. Ed Phillips, Americans for Forest Access, San Bernardino, California

 

Mr. Ed Phillips testified against the fee demo program, stating that it was never clearly communicated to the public and was, instead, "dumped on the public like a can or worms."  He said that his only solution for fee demo was to let it die in 2006 and over the next few years go back to fully funded line item budgets.