American Recreation Coalition President,
Derrick A. Crandall provided here.
Testimony of Entire Hearing Also Available
Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
Oversight hearing on the
Recreation Fee Demonstration Program
Thursday, February 4, 1999 at 10:00 a.m. in room SD106
Mr. Chairman and distinguished Members, I am Derrick Crandall and I serve as President of the American Recreation Coalition (ARC). ARC is a national federation of more than 100 national organizations actively involved in meeting the recreation needs of Americans. Our members produce recreational products ranging from canoes to motorhomes to tents, provide services ranging from campsites to downhill skiing and represent the interests of tens of millions of us belonging to individual membership groups such as the Good Sam Club and BOAT/U.S.
We are pleased to come before you again to discuss the topic of recreation fees on public lands. Quality recreation opportunities on federal lands are a central concern of the American Recreation Coalition, and we perceive fees as one element in assuring the public that their visits to their lands will be enjoyable and safe.
The recreation community enjoys free lunches just as much as any other interest group, but we have come to understand that it is hard to demand a great meal when you aren't paying. And we certainly understand that quality recreation on federal lands really isn't a free lunch: the costs have simply been borne by general taxes, not user fees. However, there is a real downside to that situation. We've seen that during recent periods of financial pressure on the federal government, recreation programs are placed in jeopardy. Campgrounds in our national forests opened later and closed earlier - frustrating millions who sought to use their lands and found only locked gates. We saw declines in interpretive programs - the ranger walks and campfire talks that have left indelible impressions on me and tens of millions of others. We saw recreationists and federal officials alike frustrated that no monies were available to create and manage opportunities for newly popular recreational activities, such as mountain biking and rock climbing. And we learned that the rules of the funding game taught federal agencies to look at the Congressional appropriators, not visitors, as their customers and the American people, their real customers, as an unwelcome burden.
We took an active part in the national debate on fees hosted by the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors (PCAO) from 1985 to 1987. Americans across the country made clear that they were willing to pay reasonable fees for quality recreation opportunities - just as they will pay reasonable costs for quality sleeping bags and boats. But we heard that the agencies had little incentive to charge recreation fees, since most fees disappeared into general Treasury accounts. We agreed when PCAO called for more reliance - not complete reliance - upon the direct beneficiaries of federal recreation facilities and services to ensure that our national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges and public lands remain hosts to outstanding recreation experiences.
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We applaud this Committee's involvement in the origins of the fee demonstration program, which is providing an important learning opportunity. Across the nation, we are experimenting with new fees and fees collected in new ways, with fees that vary by day of the week and which are regional in nature. And in addition to the learning going on, federal agencies are being furnished immediately with substantial new resources - approaching $200 million annually - to protect the Great Outdoors Legacy we share and to enhance many of the nearly two billion visits we make to federal land systems. We also think it is notable and important that for the first time, federal officials are now able to answer a visitor's simple question about where the fees they pay actually go.
We have closely monitored the actions of the four agencies involved in the fee demonstration program, consulting with local recreationists as well as agency officials implementing the program. We would like to share some observations - good and bad - which shape our recommendations to you on the future of this program.
First, the program is sparking innovation. Among the demonstration efforts we applaud are:
The Bartlett Lake example demonstrates an outstanding strategy for linking multiple state and federal programs (Wallop-Breaux, ISTEA/TEA-21, state boat registration funds), concessioner operations and the demonstration fee program and has resulted in dramatic increases in the quality of recreation experiences at this lake, roughly one hour from downtown Phoenix; the Adventure Pass experiment in southern California for its efforts to develop a convenient regional pass serving the millions of residents of and visitors to the region's four national forests. The pass is sold by some 350 vendors - chiefly businesses in gateway communities - as well as by Forest Service offices now open early and late on weekends.
And the funds are providing visitors with visible improvements, from more interpretive programs at the Big Bear Discovery Center to new trail crews (that work weekends, incidentally, to actually encourage contacts with hikers, bikers and other enthusiasts); BLM's Paria Canyon-Coyote Buttes site in Arizona, where hikers can purchase permits over the internet and also get detailed information; and the Tent Rocks site in New Mexico, involving a partnership between BLM and the Pueblo de Cochita Indian reservation. The site is accessible only via a road across tribal lands. BLM shares a portion of its fee demonstration receipts from the site with the tribe which then provides interpretation, trash collection and road maintenance.
Second, the Congress has been instrumental in the success of the fee demonstration program by freeing the agencies from laws and procedures that stifled innovation and by remaining faithful to its commitment to treat all fee demonstration revenues as supplemental to traditional appropriations - in other words, by resisting opportunities to offset the new fees with cuts in general funds.
Third, we are delighted by the generally positive findings of the GAO team which recently investigated the program (Recreation Fees: Demonstration Fee Program Successful in Raising Revenues but Could Be Improved, GAO/RCED-99-7). In fact, we would like to offer strong praise for this GAO effort and its message that there is still much learning to be done in the recreation fee arena. And we feel certain that some of the lessons learned will necessitate eventual Congressional action, whether to more clearly define appropriate use of the receipts or to provide guidance on where and when fees should be levied.
Fourth, the initial years of the fee demonstration program have underscored the importance of open and frequent communications among agencies, their public and private sector partners and visitors. With some notable exceptions, the efforts by the agencies have been inadequate. They have failed to utilize obvious channels of communications, including concessioners and other partners. Information about use of the receipts from the program is rarely accessible. We question whether the agencies are equipped to undertake the required communications efforts in house, unless personnel with new skills are recruited. The four agencies have limited experience with pro-active communications efforts, and the inexperience has caused conflict and controversy at some of the fee sites. The agencies currently devote inadequate resources to communications aspects of the fee demonstration program.
Fifth, the four agencies demonstrate little capability to develop effective marketing plans, again reflecting a dearth of employees trained in basic business skills. We applaud the initiative of the Forest Service in assembling a marketing team which is focusing on a second round of fee demonstration projects and urge the other three agencies to mount similar efforts.
Based upon those observations, we offer the following recommendations:
1) the Congress should recast the fee demonstration program as a four year program (FY2000 to FY2003) generally using the outlines of the current program created through the appropriations process but: (a)adding the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation as participating agencies; (b) allowing recreation permit receipts to be included in the program; (c) and directing the agencies to regularly monitor customer satisfaction with fees, facilities and services provided.
2) it is important to experiment with other mechanisms designed to achieve better protection of resources and enhancement of visitor experiences, including expanded volunteerism. To that end, the Congress should enact legislation establishing special recognition of the nation's best volunteers on public lands. One of the nation's largest recreation enthusiast organizations, The Good Sam Club, in a letter attached to this testimony, proposes amendments to the Take Pride in America Act which would allow federal area managers to define eligible volunteer tasks which would enable an individual to receive either tax credits or a special Take Pride in America Pass, serving both as an alternative to the Golden Eagle passport and as partial payment for recreation fees charged by select federal agencies. We see units of federal lands systems which are unable to generate substantial entrance or recreation fees as prime beneficiaries of such a program, including those in urban areas. We further see this as a means to assure that Americans with limited incomes are provided with a means to access federal sites.
3) the Congress should allow the agency heads new discretion in the use of collected receipts when receipts exceed 75% of the averageappropriation over the past three years for specific fee sites;
4) the Congress should direct the agencies to expand experimentation with variable fees, reflecting peak and non-peak visitation periods and differences in the length and extent of use. We find it astonishing and offensive that officials in Yellowstone National Park have publicly labeled visitors criminals when they give or resell still-valid passes to others - yet have taken no action to make passes available that are valid for less than seven days. In previous appearances before this committee, we have urged: experimentation with free access days to ensure that no American is "priced out" of enjoyment of this wonderful shared legacy of the outdoors; encouragement of certain types of activities on federal lands. For example, participation in interpretation programs might rise if attendance were rewarded with free or discounted re-entry to the area; a "hero pass," priced well above annual passes (and even the GoldenEagle passport) that allows supporters to demonstrate their emotional link to the parks; and annual passes that work only during non-peak times.
In addition, we continue to favor testing a national pass for the convenience of visitors to the national forests. We understand the concerns expressed by some that a national pass - a "Golden Smokey" - would reduce the link between fees and visible local use of the fees.
Yet an excellent suggestion worthy of further study arose last year at a meeting of Forest Service fee demonstration site managers: continue to focus sales efforts on annual local passes, but allow purchasers to "upgrade" such passes into a national pass with a $25-30 supplemental fee;
5) we urge the Congress to strongly recommend that the participating agencies revise the ways funds are collected. Cost of collection is greatly excessive at some sites. If costs cannot be reduced to 20% or less of total receipts, the feasibility of a site for fees should be seriously evaluated. GAO's report documented system-wide excessive fee collection costs for several agencies. In some cases, these same agencies have resisted offers of assistance from knowledgeable companies in structuring the fee programs. This reflects poor judgement in the use of capital resources and deserves OMB and Congressional oversight; and
6) finally, we suggest that the net fee revenue be generally divided evenly between addressing deferred maintenance needs in the units and enhanced visitor services, including new interpretive programs. To insure continuing public support, visibly enhanced services should be delivered using fee receipts - and should be labeled as fee-funded.
We thank you for your interest and for your willingness to address the recreation fees issue comprehensively, fairly and creatively.
Scott Silver, Executive Director,
248 NW Wilmington Avenue, Bend OR 97701
Phone (541) 385-5261 E-mail: email@example.com