"Free-Market" Think-Tanks Have Much to Say About Recreation Policy in America.

What is really behind the "Demonstration Recreation Fee Program" authorized by Congress in 1996 and currently being implemented upon federally managed public lands nation-wide? Officially, "The purpose of this program is to test the effectiveness of collecting fees and help maintain Federal recreation facilities and enhance visitor services and wildlife habitats (USFS bulletin FS-597, March 1997)."

Is this publicly stated purpose the whole story behind this program or is it just possible that there are other influences at play? Could there be any truth in Wild Wilderness' oft repeated accusation that excessive and disruptive recreational budget cuts have been "part of a carefully orchestrated strategy by sympathetic Congressmen working hand-in-glove with the 'wise-use' movement; a strategy calculated to co-opt public lands for corporate profit"?

The following is a synopsis of several highly informative documents written by America's leading proponents of "Free-Market" economic management of public lands and resources. Our nation's most influential conservative and libertarian "think tanks" are represented in these literature samples, including: The Cato Institute, The Heritage Foundation, The Thoreau Institute, the Political Economic Research Center and the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment.

Wild Wilderness has provided these brief quotes as a tool for individuals and organizations seriously interested in further researching the motivations behind this controversial program and upon legislation soon to be debated by the 105th Congress. Although we will not, in this article, provide either analysis or comment upon these materials, we would like to draw attention to one document of particular importance, that being "Terry Anderson & Donald Leal -- Political Economic Research Center 9/29/88" (file number L-59). Our reasons are as follows:

Having provided these referential starting points, Wild Wilderness leaves you to arrive at your own conclusions. We put this material up for public examination, hoping that more qualified and experienced researchers may help us answer the following question: Is the official explanation of the "demonstration recreation fee program" complete and accurate, or is there more to this story?

The following materials are listed according to their file number in the Wild Wilderness reference collection. There is no significance to the order in which these are presented. All statements are direct quotations from the indicated internet source documents. Information in square brackets [ ] has been added for clarification. Information in parenthetical brackets { } has been added for guidance.

(NOTE: Links that are now 'dead" at their original location
can generally still be viewed at The WayBack Machine.)


(Randal O'Toole - The Thoreau Institute)

Agencies funded out of their net income will be subject to several new laws. First is the Law of Profits, which says that the agency should avoid any activity that loses money. ...The Second is the Law of Responsiveness, which says that the agency will be most responsive to the users whose fees generate the most profits.



(Randal O'Toole - The Thoreau Institute)

...Congress has far more power over the agency [USFS] than the secretary [Jim Lyons], as the salvage sale rider demonstrated. The reason for this is that Congress has the power that Lyons lacks: the power over the budget, which effectively shapes the agency's incentives.



(Randal O'Toole - The Thoreau Institute)

{This document must be taken very seriously. In 1987, it was O'Toole who proposed the recreation fee program detailed in Anderson & Leal's very important article, L-59.}


The following was drafted by the Thoreau Institute to show one way in which the statement of forest principles could be implemented. The Bill is intended for public discussion...



a) Within four months of the passage of this act, the Secretary of Agriculture shall draft a division of non-wilderness lands and non-wild and scenic rivers in the National Forest System into individual Units...

c) Upon establishment of the National Forest Unit boundaries, the Secretary shall create for each unit a National Forest Trust, which shall be a not-for-profit corporation chartered under the laws of the United States. Any citizen of the United States may become a member of any National Forest Trust for a nominal annual fee, initially set at $20 per year, paid to the supervisor or interim supervisor of the National Forest Unit. Each Trust shall have complete jurisdiction over the lands and resources with the associated National Forest Unit...

d) ... the interim supervisor of each National Forest Unit shall arrange for members of each trust to elect, by a mail-in ballot, a nine-member Board of Trustees. ...The Board of Trustees shall have the following powers:

2) The power to hire and fire the supervisor of the National Forest Unit or Wilderness System.

4) The power to set membership fees and arrange annual, mail-in elections for members of the Board.

k) In the event that any National Forest Unit is unable to sustain itself with the funds provided for it under section 6 of this Act, the Board of Trustees for that unit may elect to transfer the lands under its jurisdiction to the jurisdiction of any other willing National Forest Trust.


{This section details a separate, and completely distinct, system of management for Wilderness Areas . The program is outlined in language similar to that describing National Forest Trusts. (see above)}



Terry Anderson & Donald Leal -- Political Economic Research Center. 9/29/88)

{Note: This is perhaps, the single most comprehensive document detailing the "free-market" approach to recreation in America. Because the original article is so lengthy and offers so many noteworthy quotes, this author has deliberately resisted the temptation to excerpt it with a myriad of "sound bites". The following quote comes from a single contiguous passage in the original PERC report.}

5. Federal land agencies should implement a realistic user fee program in national forests, Bureau of Land Management rangelands, wildlife refuges, and national parks. Currently, zero or token fees are charged for recreation on public lands. This practice has resulted in crowding in many areas, abuses of resources, and reduced incentives for the private sector to provide similar activities. Private forestry economist and ecologist Randal O'Toole has proposed a recreational user fee program for the national forests, along with other recommendations to create greater sensitivity on the part of forest- management officials to the value of recreational amenities. He suggests a $3 daily permit for dispersed recreation in all national forests as well as higher fees for high-demand activities unique to individual forests. He also proposes decentralizing the national forest system, an approach that includes having each national forest retain recreational user fees and income from production of commodities, such as timber and minerals, and ending appropriations from Congress. Under this arrangement, each unit would have to emphasize production of goods that produce a positive net return. According to O'Toole's study of national forest budgets, this policy would result in an overall shift in emphasis from timber production to recreation production. This approach is appropriate for application in the other recreational federal-land systems as well. Finally, the move to higher recreational user fees would have the important feature of giving the private sector a chance to compete on an equal footing when it attempts to provide similar forms of recreation.

6. ...Encouraging greater participation by the private sector will have desirable results. Such participation can reduce pressure on public resources and create greater diversity. The importance of substitutes should not be underestimated. Many consumers of outdoor recreation who are tired of the growing crowds on public lands are looking for options that the private sector can provide. There is evidence of this in the West, where fee hunting is growing in popularity despite the availability of massive amounts of public land.

The recently completed report of the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors was supposed to help bring about a happy, healthy, and prosperous recreational future. By clinging to an outdated agenda that promotes bigger government, however, it failed to do so. The alternative paradigm is free market environmentalism, which suggests that there is untapped potential in the private sector. Rising values of recreation and environmental amenities will provide the incentive for entrepreneurs to develop new technologies and institutions for producing and marketing them. We must ensure that the legal environment is not inimical to private ownership and provision of these goods.



(Donald Leal -- Political Economic Research Center)

Statement for the Subcommittee on Parks and Public Lands (7/10/97)

Mr. Chairman: My name is Don Leal, and I am a Senior Associate of the Political Economic Research Center (PERC) located in Bozeman, Montana. I am here today to present the case for returning our national parks to the self-supporting parks they were intended to be...

Thanks to Congress, the National Park Service is now testing the waters of greater user support at selected national parks. Congress recently authorized a three-year demonstration program that raises user fees at up to one hundred popular parks...

We must make further changes, however if we are to create self-supporting parks. To steer national parks in this direction, here are a few recommendations:

Congress should established a fixed schedule that gradually reduces annual appropriations for park operations over a ten-year period until they reach zero...

Congress should allow park managers to institute their own fee-based services...

Most of the fees collected in these parks, about 95% should remain in the park in which they were collected, to be used to fund operation there...

Of course, some parks will not attract enough visitors or have enough commercially valued assets to be self supporting. If these parks are to remain in the public domain, they should be funded separately out of general funds and not be subsidized by high-use parks. These parks could also be turned over to private, non-profit groups with a one-time endowment to fund maintenance...

Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak here today on this critical issue, Mr. Chairman



(John A. Baden, Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment)

When our national forests give away recreation, private managers cannot compete. But when national forests charge fees, private land may open up to recreation, also for a fee.



Jeff Hanson - (Washington Foundation Institute)

Market-Based User Fees and Privatization Can Solve Budget Strains
User fees are more equitable and effective if they reflect the market demand for the good or service being priced. Rather than introducing a flat-rate day-use fee, State Parks ought to establish a system of differential fees that captures visitor demand. The value that a park visitor attaches to a particular park varies according to the location and quality of the park, the time of year (e.g., weather considerations), day of week, and so on. A flat day-use fee improperly ignores these economic factors.



Jeff Hanson - (Washington Foundation Institute)

Privatization Opportunities for Washington State Parks
Privatization is a well-established technique for improving the delivery of government services. By substituting the creativity of the marketplace for government monopoly, privatization can often lower costs, improve service levels and allow government to focus on its core functions.
Privatization has been applied with success to the operation of government-owned parks. Several park systems in North America contract out a significant share of their operations. Among them are the provincial park systems of Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario. Their approaches vary, but their privatization efforts have helped them confront their own budget challenges. Washington state’s park planners should learn from the experiences of these park systems and apply those lessons to reform the operation of Washington state’s parks.



See Also:    Privatizing America's Public Lands

This document was prepared by Wild Wilderness. To learn more about ongoing industry-backed congressional efforts to motorize, commercialize, and privatize America's public lands, contact:

Scott Silver, Executive Director,
248 NW Wilmington Avenue,  Bend  OR 97701
Phone (541) 385-5261    E-mail: ssilver@wildwilderness.org