The 1996 Interior Appropriations bill included authorization for a three-year recreation fee demonstration program. It directs the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service to create a variety of projects to collect fees from recreationists who use facilities on public lands. The agencies had already begun planning implementation of the program and quickly went back to work with its implementation. The BLM is planning at least 22 fee demonstrations at sites around the West, while the Forest Service is planning 47 tests in national forests across the nation.
The recreation fee demo program may represent a major step toward increasing funding for recreation management on public lands. Mountain bicyclists and other recreationists could end up paying fees to use trails, while reaping benefits in the form of better trail maintenance, trailhead facilities and other amenities.
The potential downside to user fees is the possibility that the Congress will use the money to replace, rather than supplement, existing appropriations of tax dollars which now fund recreation management. Some observers have speculated that this is exactly the intention. There is probably no way to prevent this, and recreationists will inevitably have to go back every year to the Congress for appropriations of tax dollars.
The demo program directs each of the four agencies to begin charging fees at up to 50 sites, and it allows local land units to keep up to 80% of the new revenue received between 1996 and 1998. The other 20% gets distributed to recreation projects within each agency.
The bill allows national forests to charge general entrance fees, and a few forests in the West are planning to institute that in 1997. National parks typically charge entrance fees at those little booths, but national forests and BLM lands have multitudes of road and trail entrances, so the only practical method would be a pass which users could purchase and carry with them.
Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas explained his agency's viewpoint on the program: "Our National Forests offer some of the best recreation opportunities in the world, with over 800 million recreation visits this past year, and we expect as many as 1.2 billion visits per year by the year 2040. Yet, despite this increasing demand, shrinking budgets and a backlog of operation and maintenance needs at recreation sites are common.
With this test, we will see how the public reacts to paying admission or use fees in National Forests. Our goal is to put the money to work where it's collected to maintain and improve our facilities."
Fee levels will reflect local circumstances, he said. In setting fees, the Forest Service will consider what's charged at nearby comparable sites.
"We want to hear from the public about individual projects or sites," said Thomas. "Is there support for the fees? Do the fees and associated activities work as intended? And are facilities and recreation opportunities improved?"
To learn about or comment on the test fees, contact the National Forest that administers the project. General comments can be submitted to the Forest Service by e-mail: email@example.com
Rob Roudebush, a budget analyst for BLM, said that his agency will ask the public in open forums to provide input to determine a fair market fee. "We're ready to market and communicate our fee demos to the public. We must do local marketing," he remarked.