Nearly four months ago, right after top officials from the Interior and Agriculture departments joyously announced the America The Beautiful Pass, I wondered whether that $80 piece of plastic would adversely impact the Park Service's revenue stream.
Guess what? Park Service officials are wondering that very same thing.
"We don't know that, to be honest," Jane Moore, the agency's fee program manager, replied when I asked whether ATB would cost the Park Service money. "We're really hoping that we stay the same, or maybe slightly increase. We're just not sure because we don't know the inter-agency aspect."
That "inter-agency aspect" revolves around the Park Service having to share revenues from pass sales with the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and one or two other land-management agencies. Before ATB arrived this past January 1, the Park Service had its very own pass -- the $50 National Parks Pass -- and could claim 100 percent of the revenues from its sales.
Now, not only is the agency hoping sales of the $80 ATB pass don't dip too much compared to National Parks Pass sales, but also that many of the sales will be wrung up at national park entrance stations.
And, according to Ms. Moore, the Park Service has reason to be optimistic. Back when you could buy a Golden Eagle Pass, the $65 predecessor to the ATB pass that got you into not just every park in the national park system but also any Forest Service or BLM lands that charged entry fees, the Park Service sold 90 percent or more of all Golden Eagle Passes in circulation.
Of course, prior to 1996 there were little, if any, Forest Service or BLM access fees to pay. But once the "Fee Demo" program that was launched in 1996 was replaced by the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act late in December 2004, the Forest Service quickly embraced entrance fees across its 191 million acres. The BLM hasn't been quite so bold, but it still has some sites that require entrance fees.
So, in terms of NPS revenues, one of the gambles created by the ATB pass is whether there are more folks who, for instance, use Forest Service lands than parks and so will be likely to purchase their ATB pass at a Forest Service site, thus ensuring that 80 percent of the revenues stay within the Forest Service.
Such a concern was related to me back in December by Stefanie Clement, the conservation director for Friends of Acadia.
"My big concern, for parks in general, is this question of how many people will purchase the pass, instead of at a national park, at a Forest Service (unit) or BLM or some other place and that will result in less revenues coming to the national parks, which are already stretched," she said at the time. "If this pass becomes incredibly popular, and if people are buying them at national forests instead of national parks, that's not going to be a big help for the Department of Interior."
That question -- where will folks buy the ATB, if they buy it at all -- is the big unknown. Will sales be dominated by the Park Service, Forest Service, BLM, REI, EMS or the Internet? Indeed, with the move to sign more and more third-party outlets into the program, that could greatly impact NPS sales and revenues.
"The one unknown that we're dealing with is the number and quantity and geographic proximity of the various entities," Ms. Moore told me yesterday. "The problem that we have is we're still really early in the program right now and we're still trying to find out exactly where the pass is going to be available for sale as well as which third parties (ie., REI and EMS, just to name two) are interested in purchasing the pass (for resale).
"We have only seven third-party partner contracts signed right now for selling the pass at the national level. And there are some that are being handled more locally. ... We haven't done formal studies. We know that it (point-of-sale markets) could be an issue and it just kinda depends on where visitors' trips begin and end and those that are interested in purchasing the pass, where they start their trips."
One thing possibly going in favor of the Park Service is that in the past folks bought their National Park Pass or their Golden Eagle Pass once they arrived at a park, not beforehand, according to Ms. Moore.
"People really didn't think about it until they showed up at the gate and they're maybe on a road-trip going to three parks and they figure out, 'Gee, if I buy the pass it's a better deal for me.'"
Now, what happens if the parks don't sell the bulk of the ATB passes and its revenues do swoon? There is a fee council in place that could decide to rearrange the distribution of revenues to help off-set that decline, but that won't happen overnight.
"We need to get at least a year or two worth of data to see how it all plays out, and if we need to make adjustments we probably can do that," says Ms. Moore.
Still, in an atmosphere where the parks over the past decade have been forced to rely more and more on entrance fee revenues to repair roads and trails, upgrade visitor facilities such as restrooms, and pay for interpretation exhibits and even transportation systems, that could be an extremely costly delay.