Visitor Fees in the National Park System:
A Legislative and Administrative History
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The Recreation Fees and Improvements Act of 1982

The several congressional initiatives of 1978-1980 restricting fee collection ]and administrative control over receipts flew in the face of President Jimmy Carter's Office of Management and Budget and Interior Department leadership. On this issue, President Ronald Reagan's appointees agreed totally with their predecessors. Under even greater pressure to cut domestic spending, they saw park fees as a logical way of offsetting general revenue appropriations for this discretionary category of the Federal budget.

Under orders to respond to what Congress had wrought, the Service's legislative office prepared and circulated for comment within the agency a draft "Park and Recreation Revenue Act of 1982" in December 1981. The draft bill would increase the $10 ceiling on the Golden Eagle Passport, make entrance and user fee receipts available to the collecting agency for authorized outdoor recreation functions without further appropriation, make VTS fees available without appropriation for VTS establishment and enhancement only, and repeal inconsistent provisions of existing law, including the general entrance fee freeze and the several park-specific fee prohibitions. [1]

The proposed bypass of the congressional appropriations process was judged unrealistic; it was also inconsistent with the response received from OMB to the Service's fiscal 1983 budget request. In addition to repeal of the freeze and the Golden Eagle ceiling, OMB wanted fee revenues subject to annual appropriations to offset funding from general revenues. It also sought repeal of the legislated criteria for user charges in the 1974 Land and Water Conservation Fund Act amendment. [2]

The bill was revised to have fee revenues, including concession franchise, returned to a special account available for appropriation to the collecting agency; unlike past practice, 20 percent of the revenues would be earmarked for the collecting park or area, while the rest would go for "restoration and improvement of visitor use facilities" generally. The minimum standards for camping fees would be removed, and the Golden Eagle ceiling would go to $25.

Meanwhile, Interior's Policy, Budget, and Administration (PBA) secretariat, traditionally allied with OMB in support of higher fees, was promoting the cause to Secretary James G. Watt:

We feel that a lot more could be done with the concept of User Fees than either the National Park Service or the Office of Management and Budget currently are considering.

1. The User Fee Program must be established in such a way that the NPS, from top to bottom, has the maximum incentive possible to both increase and collect fees. If those fees are completely offset against appropriations, such an incentive disappears.

2. The User Fee Program has not worked well in the past because NPS personnel have not seen any benefits to the Park Service from the fees and often have viewed a fee program as a liability.

3. With proper development, a User Fee Program can move the NPS in the direction of self-sufficiency and substantially, or entirely, free the Park System from the appropriation process. [3]

In commenting on the Service's revised draft bill, PBA declared the $25 Golden Eagle still too inexpensive and favored discontinuation of the annual pass and per-vehicle fee approach as insufficiently productive of revenue. It recommended deauthorization of the Golden Eagle and substitution of general language allowing the Secretary to develop "multiple visit entrance permits" on a per capita basis. It opposed the 20 percent provision as too restrictive. It wanted authority to charge for back-country camping, canoeing, and rafting. So that fee revenues would not be used to offset general appropriations and thus impair the Service's incentive to collect, it proposed an agreement with OMB to hold the NPS budget at the 1983 level (possibly indexed for inflation) for the next five years, during which increases would come from fees. [4]

At a meeting attended by Secretary Watt, Assistant Secretary G. Ray Arnett (Fish and Wildlife and Parks), and Deputy Assistant Secretary William D. Bettenberg (PBA) on January 5, 1982, agreement was reached to rework the bill generally in accordance with PBA's recommendations. [5] The bill was put in final form at OMB after another meeting there with representatives of Interior, Agriculture, and the Corps of Engineers; it was transmitted to Congress on February 22 retitled "Recreation Fees and Improvements Act of 1982."

The transmittal letters to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House, signed by Secretary Watt, Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block, and Secretary of the Army John O. Marsh, Jr., declared the administration bill "necessary for full implementation of the President's program for economic recovery." Noting that existing fee revenues covered only four percent of the cost of public recreation areas and facilities, they estimated an increase to ten percent under the proposed legislation. The bill would accomplish this by

Among the provisions in the bill was one authorizing the several agency heads " to require an admission permit for the occupancy and use of Federal lands for hunting and fishing...." When this reached the responsible congressional committees, reaction was immediate and emphatic. Only four days after its transmittal, Secretary Watt wrote the presiding officers of Congress asking that the bill be withdrawn. The bill had been misunderstood to prescribe Federal hunting and fishing licenses, he said:

That certainly was not the intent of the proposal and we want the record to be absolutely clear on this issue. The provision was included to allow an expansion of the Golden Eagle Passport to cover those areas for which there is a charge for entry into hunting and fishing areas. In other words, we were giving an additional benefit to hunters and fishermen whereby they could use their Golden Eagle Passport in these particular areas without having to pay additional fees.... However, because this provision has been badly misinterpreted, we would request that this legislation be withdrawn to allow us the opportunity to revise the legislation to reflect our true intention.

"Thank you for forcefully bringing to our attention your objections to our recent submission to the Congress on recreation fees..., " Assistant to the Secretary Stanley W. Hulett wrote simultaneously to Senator James A. McClure of Idaho, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "It was our intention to expand the Golden Eagle Passport by allowing its use for entry into federal hunting and fishing areas where entry fees are already charged." [7]

The National Park System Fee Dedication and Park Improvement Act of 1982

Rather than undergoing minor modification to remove the offending provision, the interagency "Recreation Fees and Improvements Act" was scrapped for a more modest proposal affecting only the National Park System. Drafted in the office of interior's Legislative Counsel, it was referred to the Park Service on June 28 for comment only. The new bill would partially supersede the fiscal 1981 Interior Appropriations Act provision by dedicating NPS entrance fee--but not user fee--receipts to a special appropriations account for "the repair, maintenance, and improvement of facilities, the provision of safety and services, and the restoration, protection, and preservation of natural and cultural resources, for the benefit and enjoyment of visitors to the National Park System." It contained authority for the Secretary to adjust entrance fees up and down within the range of inflation since 1972 (as if downward adjustment were a real option), to establish new entrance fees, and to suspend entrance fee collection when warranted. The draft transmittal letter included budgetary constraints among the factors justifying additional fee income for park funding. [8]

The Service's chief of legislation proposed that the bill also authorize an increase in the Golden Eagle ceiling and dedicate user fees as well as entrance fees to the special account for the purposes specified. "From a strategy standpoint," he noted, "the statement in the transmittal that because of budgetary constraints alternative funding, such as provided in this bill, is required for the parks plays directly into the hands of those who are afraid these fees will offset regular appropriations." [9] Minor language adjustments were made in response to the last comment, but nothing was done about the Golden Eagle or user fees.

Titled "National Park System Fee Dedication and Park Improvement Act of 1982," the bill was transmitted to the Congress on July 1. Senator McClure introduced it as S. 2758 on July 20, but no action on it appeared likely as the 97th Congress neared adjournment. [10]

Recognizing the inadequacy of the bill and the unlikelihood of its approval, the Service sought achievement of one of its purposes through another avenue. The NPS budget justification submitted to Congress for fiscal 1983 contained language to fully repeal the unwanted provision in the 1981 appropriations act so that all visitor fees could be returned to a special agency account. The proposal was under consideration in the congressional appropriations committees as this was written, but its chances appeared slim. [11]

NPS Revenue Management Planning, 1982

As the administration's aborted Recreation Fees and Improvements Act was undergoing reconsideration in the Department, the Service was acting on its own (under continued pressure from above, to be sure) to strengthen its fee collection posture. On April 1, 1982, Acting Director Ira J. Hutchison announced formation of a nine-member Entrance and User Fee Work Group chaired by Richard J. Rambur of the Ranger Activities and Protection Division in Washington. Its objectives were to review and identify services that might qualify for user fees, to develop a uniform comparability guide for setting fees, to develop alternate, less costly means of fee collection, and to develop definitions for the legislated fee criteria in the Code of Federal Regulations. [12]

The group set out to accomplish these tasks within the framework of a "Revenue Management Plan...that maximizes the income to the Service from users and donors, consistent with the recreation/resources protection mission of individual NPS units." The policy statement drafted on the plan emphasized the need for incentives: collected revenues should be returned to the Service, supplementing rather than substituting for regular appropriations; and significant portions of the revenues should go to the individual parks where collected, again as supplements to normal allocations.

The group distributed guidance and evaluation materials to the field on developing and improving fee programs. Among them were "self-sufficiency strategy evaluation sheets" for entrance, user, and special use permit fees. Suggested ways of increasing net entrance fee revenue included shortening the allowed time under a single visit permit, establishing an honor system for collection in lieu of no collection, checking permits at exit stations, using automated devices, and simply raising fees. Among proposals for increasing net user fee income were charging for back-country permits, snowmobile permits, and other permits then free; charging for secondary interpretive programs; recovering costs of emergency services, including search and rescue; charging for boat registration, bathhouses, and parking; and allowing campers to exceed prescribed time limits when excess capacity was available and camping fees exceeded operational costs. Several of the items proposed for consideration by park managers, such as raising entrance fees, were identified as requiring new legislation to remove existing restrictions. [13]

Raising user fees required no such legislation. The highest campsite charge in the National Park System went from $4 to $6 in 1982, and another boost to $7 was projected for 1983. Added to the maximum entrance fee of $3 (at Yosemite), this would bring the highest total cost for a family camping the first night to $10--the price of the Golden Eagle Passport admitting that family to all entrance fee areas for a year.

The General Accounting Office Study, 1982

Prompted by the congressional freeze on park entrance fees, the General Accounting Office (GAO) conducted an independent study of those fees in 1981-82. The objectives of the study were to estimate the proper entrance fee levels at 71 selected parks, using the 6 criteria in the 1972 amendment to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, [14] and to determine whether Congress should reconsider the freeze.

The resulting report, dated August 4, 1982, noted that entrance fees had not been raised for more than 10 years at 53 of the 64 units of the System then making such charges. Entrance fee revenues relative to NPS operation and maintenance costs had declined from more than seven percent of such costs in 1971 to two percent in 1981. By historical standards the fees were extremely low: the 1916 auto permit prices at Yellowstone ($10), Yosemite ($8), and Mount Rainier ($6) were equivalent to $83, $65, and $50 respectively in 1982 dollars. By current standards, the cost per family of entering the major parks was still much less than for entering such attractions as Disneyland, Biltmore, Mount Vernon, and Marineland.

Applying the unit-day-value method used by Federal water resources agencies in developing cost-benefit ratios for water projects, GAO estimated that the value for a family of four for a day at six major parks ranged from $7.64 to $11.40, while the entrance fee at most was only $2. The report proposed more moderate increases to $7 at 25 parks, instituting fees (at lower levels) at 23 additional parks, and extending hours of collection at 14 areas. Consistent with the average 150 percent increase proposed, an increase in the Golden Eagle Passport from $10 to $25 was recommended as well. It was predicted that the Service would net nearly $21 million more each year if these steps were taken.

The report noted some of the secondary benefits from entrance fee collection long cited by proponents. Collection at entrance stations reduced crime and vandalism by bringing visitors into contact with park officials at the outset, deterring those with unlawful intentions. In addition, collectors served to greet visitors and provide information on park attractions and hazards.

GAO's proposed fee levels were in the nature of suggestions. Its official recommendations were that Congress repeal the entrance fee freeze and remove the $10 ceiling on the Golden Eagle, and that the Secretary of the Interior direct the National Park Service to establish guidelines for applying the six legislated fee criteria, to set the Golden Eagle price based on the fee levels set at the individual parks, and to extend fee collection hours where cost-effective. Had the Service couched its 1979 fee increase proposal in terms of the legislated criteria, the report contended, the congressional concerns that the Service had not adequately accounted for the value of the visitor experience and had improperly linked fees to operation and maintenance costs would have been addressed. [15]

Following review of a draft of the report, Assistant Secretary G. Ray Arnett responded enthusiastically to GAO: "We agree with the proposed recommendations to the Secretary and work has begun to put all the recommendations into effect." He referred specifically to the efforts of the NPS Entrance and User Fee Work Group then underway, emphasized the importance of reimbursement to the Service and the parks for fee collection costs, and expressed his belief that the final report "will have positive influence on fee legislation that may be submitted to Congress." [16] The administration bill thereafter submitted neglected to provide for an increase in the Golden Eagle, however, virtually insuring that much potential revenue from higher individual park fees would be lost through increased purchases of the $10 all-park permit.


1Memorandum, Chief, Office of Legislation to NPS Associate Director, Management and Operations, Dec. 4, 1981, NPS Office of Legislation,, Washington, D.C. (hereinafter cited as WASO-170).

2Memorandum, Associate Director Nancy Garrett to Chief, Office of Legislation, Dec. 15, 1981, WASO-170.

3Memorandum, Deputy Assistant Secretary William D. Bettenberg, PBA, to Watt, Dec. 17, 1981, WASO-170.

4Memorandum, Assistant Secretary J. Robinson West, PBA, to Assistant Secretary, Fish and Wildlife and Parks, Dec. 29, 1981, WASO-170.

5Memorandum, James M. Lambe to reviewers, Jan. 17, 1982, WASO-170.

6Letters, Watt, Block, and Marsh to George Bush and Thomas p. O'Neill, Jr., Feb. 22, 1982, with accompanying bill, WASO-170.

7Letters, Watt to Bush and O'Neill, Feb. 26, 1982, WASO-170; letter, Hulett to McClure, Feb. 26, 1982, WASO-170. The explanations given were confused if not disingenuous. Entrance fees were levied in no areas where hunting was permitted. At all areas where entrance fees were charged, including those with fishing, the Golden Eagle already served for admission. The only way use of the Golden Eagle would be expanded for hunters and fishermen was to charge for previously free hunting and fishing areas--the clear purpose of the offending provision.

8Memorandum, Mary Bradford to Russell E. Dickenson and James M. Lambe, June 28, 1982, with accompanying bill, WASO-170.

9Memorandum to Mary Bradford, June 29, 1982, WASO-170.

10Letters, Watt to George Bush and Thomas P. O'Neill, Jr., July 1, 1982, WASO-170; Congressional Record, July 20, 1982, p. S8733.

11Personal conversations, C. Bruce Sheaffer, Oct. 18, 1982, and Ira E. Whitlock, Dec. 7, 1982.

12Memorandum, Hutchison to Regional Directors, Apr. 1, 1982, Ranger Activities and Protection Division, Washington, D.C. (hereinafter cited as WASO-535).

13"Revenue Management Plan Implementation Policy," Apr. 7, 1982, and attachments, WASO-535.

14"Direct and indirect cost to the Government, the benefits to the recipient, the public policy or interest served, the comparable recreation fees charged by non-Federal public agencies, the economic and administrative feasibility of fee collection and other pertinent factors."

15"Increasing Entrance Fees--National Park Service," Comptroller General's Report to the Congress, Aug. 4, 1982.

16Letter, Arnett to Henry Eschwege, June 8, 1982, ibid., p. 51.


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