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