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WITNESS LIST

Oversight Hearing on the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program

Thursday, June 11,1998

2:00 p.m. - SD-366

Honorable John Berry, Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget,
Department of the Interior, Washington, DC

Lyle Laverty, Regional Forester,
U.S. Forest Service, Washington,DC

David Brown, Executive Director,
America Outdoors, Knoxville, TN

Adena Cook, Public Lands Director,
Blue Ribbon Coalition, Idaho Falls, ID

Dunham Gooding, President,
Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America, Boulder, CO

Art Peterson, President and CEO,
Kampgrounds of America, Billlngs, MT

 

Testimony: Arthur M. Peterson

Mr. Chairman and distinguished Members, I am Art Peterson and I serve as President of Kampgrounds of America, Inc., a franchiser and operator of approximately 550 campgrounds and RV resorts serving approximately 25 million overnight visitors annually.  KOA is based in Billings, Montana, where our company began in 1962.  I am also appearing on behalf of the Recreation Roundtable, an organization comprised of the chief executive officers of nearly two dozen leading businesses in the recreation field. 

Both KOA and the Recreation Roundtable have a long-time interest in the topic of recreation fees on public lands.  As a for-profit provider of services which are in some cases quite similar to those furnished by federal agencies, or by concessioners on federal lands, we naturally are interested when recreation facilities and services are provided free or below cost.  We can't do that - at least not if we hope to remain in business.  Yet we also believe that there is an important benefit associated with providing high-quality, low-cost camping opportunities, for these experiences can help link Americans and visitors to our lands with our special outdoor legacy of parks and forests.

In short, we believe there is a role for recreational services like campgrounds both on federal lands and off, campgrounds that deliver good experiences.

Unfortunately, what is free or cheap is not always good, either in value or in quality.  And that is the sad situation with some of the campgrounds and other recreation facilities on America's public lands. In fact, the Forest Service has established in its long range planning a goal of having 60% of all its visitors enjoy facilities that meet the agency's basic standards of quality.  This is not an acceptable goal for any organization, public or private.  To the extent that this reflects inadequate financial resources, we can and must take action.  I can assure that our experience, and the experiences of companies ranging from L.L. Bean to Disney, Coleman to REI, Fleetwood to OMC and more, is that the American public expects good value in its recreation choices, and will choose to pay more for clean, safe, well operated facilities.

These experiences led the Recreation Roundtable to support fair but higher fees for recreation on federal lands beginning in the late 1980's.  We supported the fee demonstration initiative at its inception in 1995 and have invested substantial energies working with the demonstration sites of several agencies to make the program successful.

In order to provide background on our actions, I ask that the testimony of Derrick Crandall, Executive Vice President of the Recreation Roundtable, before the House Committee on Resources on the fee demonstration program be included in the record of this hearing.

Generally, we believe that the fee demo program is a laudable and successful experiment.  The report to the Congress on the first full year of the fee demonstration program displays the range of new approaches which together are increasing recreation program budgets of four key agencies by some $150 million this year.  We are learning about mechanisms that are permanent cures for, not bandages hiding, the ills that have boosted our backlog of deferred maintenance on federal lands well above ten billion dollars.  For the first time, key agency personnel on the ground are able to answer a visitor's question about where the fees they pay actually go - and visitors can see the results of their fees.

We support fee systems which are equitable, efficient, convenient for the recreationist, coherent and integrated, and which make the fees available to provide the  resources, facilities and programs utilized by those paying the fees.

We feel that effective fee programs will help federal agencies become more customer- focused - which is hard to accomplish when 95% or more of your budget is determined within the Washington beltway a year in advance.  However, we cannot appear today in total praise of the program, nor can we offer our support for moving immediately into a new and permanent fee program.  Our reasons are two-fold.  First, there have been legitimate complaints about specific fee demonstration projects. Some of the concerns reflect poor communications but others may reflect deeper issues, including the need for a better long-term definition of federal agencies' roles in recreation.  Second, while we have seen some outstanding innovation by the agencies, far more ideas and approaches can and should be tested - from new technologies that minimize cash collections at remote sites to national passes and stamps that are more convenient to visitors, avoiding a growing criticism of "nickel and dime charges."

Let me elaborate on the concerns raised with specific fee projects.  As this committee may know, there has been a marked change in Forest Service campgrounds since 1987.  Today, more than 70% of all stays at developed campgrounds occur at campgrounds operated under concession agreements.  Although we do not operate any of these campgrounds, we can conceive of doing so some day.  We think this is good policy, with both campers and taxpayers benefiting.  The fee demonstration authority, with its promise of at least 80% of all receipts remaining at the collection site has sparked entrepreneurial fires within some agency officials at the grassroots level - and that is largely good.  Yet without much business experience and limited financial analysis tools, the fee demo option can blind some of these individuals to long-term benefits of working in partnership with concessioners and permittees. It would not be desirable, for example, for the Forest Service to attempt to operate a ski area even if it could retain all lift ticket receipts under fee demo.  Similarly, we doubt the wisdom of returning a substantial number of campgrounds now under concession management to direct Forest Service operation.

Another concern involves coordination of fees on federal lands with those charged by states and counties - or even by other federal agencies.  In many states, Forest Service and BLM trail programs receive substantial annual payments from state agencies, utilizing funds collected through ORV vehicle registration programs and on fuel used in off-highway recreation activities.  Before new federal fees for parking at trailheads, for example - are imposed on those who are already paying the state fees, others who are not currently contributing to recreation facilities and programs on federal lands need to be assessed.

These concerns are a predictable result of a new tool being provided to federal officials who are very hard-pressed to meet growing and changing demands for recreation.  In some cases, the fee demo program is viewed as a universal wrench able to fix all problems - and it is not.  The fee demo program - and the permanent fee program we hope to see follow it eventually - need to be viewed as merely one of a variety of tools which, with training in use, can keep federal recreation programs in good working order.  It is for this reason that ARC strongly encourages the four federal agencies to develop recreation strategies identifying overall goals as well as the full array of tools available to achieve those goals and effective training programs for its employees who will be in this "brave new world" - for federal agencies - of depending upon the marketplace for a substantial portion of needed revenues.

We urge the congress to let the fee demo program continue, and not to rush to enact permanent fee reform until we've experimented more and learned from those experiments.

We believe that much of the experimentation and learning available to the agencies from the program is not yet even underway.  In our testimony before Congress in 1995, the recreation industry outlined a variety of ideas we hoped would be tested by the agencies.  The National Park Service, especially, is an important laboratory for this learning. 

While the fee demo program has produced substantial new receipts for that agency with minor complaints, most of the revenue has been generated from increases in already-existing entrance fees.  The agency can and should also consider: use of differential pricing between peak and non-peak periods of the year, to encourage shifts of visitations to periods of the year with the capacity to host visitors with minimal social and environmental consequences; linkages among parks, especially those with clear revenue-generating capability and those without.  One way to do this would be to allow volunteers at non-fee sites to earn access to fee sites (for example, through a link between the National Capital Region's sites and Shenandoah National Park);  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; and  a "hero pass," priced well above annual passes (and even the Golden Eagle passport) that allows supporters to demonstrate their emotional link to the parks.

In addition, we believe that the Forest Service must seriously consider the creation of a national pass for the convenience of its visitors.  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 at a meeting of Forest Service fee demonstration site managers: continue to focus sales efforts on annual local passes, but allow purchasers to "super-size" such passes, paying an additional $25-30 to make their pass valid throughout the national forest system for access, parking and use of visitor centers. 

We recognize that this committee has already approved legislation expanding and extending the fee demonstration program for the National Park Service.  We would urge the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to authorize a new and slightly  redirected fee demonstration effort for all four agencies, extending its duration through Fiscal Year 2002.  Key changes in the program should include: a prohibition on use of the authority to "replace, disrupt or jeopardize the provision of public recreation services on federal lands by permittees and concessioners"; new direction on the types of fee strategies to be tested during the demonstration period, including peak/off-peak pricing, strategies to encourage volunteerism and free access periods; a provision for a modest growth in the number of sites permitted under the program; a refocusing of use of the receipts, restricting them to projects at the collection site: enhancing interpretation, signage, visitor facilities and law enforcement relating to public use; operations and maintenance of facilities serving visitors; and backlogged repairs to facilities serving the public; and specifically allowing inclusion of special use permits as fee demonstration projects.

We also urge that this committee consider another means to explore innovative solutions to challenges on federal lands through a new 'infrastructure demonstration program."  It appears that the budgets for federal agencies that together host nearly two billion visitors annually will be constrained by the spending ceilings assigned to the relevant appropriations committees.  Especially if this is the case, prompt action is required to prevent a deterioration in recreation services and facilities.  Frankly, public support for higher fees will dissipate quickly if the base funding for federal recreation programs erodes. One means to stretch available funding is through attracting private investments in visitor facilities that generate revenues like campgrounds and marinas.  We urge the Congress to permit federal agencies to explore replacing appropriated construction capital with investor capital.  In exchange for a longer term and other considerations, companies will invest in needed water systems and bathroom facilities, roads and trails, visitor services and picnic areas.  By reducing the need for capital, available dollars can be focused on current operating budgets.  In the same way, it may be possible to find innovative solutions to federal agency road and bridge needs.  Reserve units of our military regularly undertake construction projects as training missions - some of these might occur on federal lands, with appropriated funding available for purchases of materials. With a backlog of nearly 1,000 bridges needing work on its road network and very limited appropriations, the national forests are a prime candidate for this experimentation.

Mr.  Chairman, we thank you for your interest in the role of recreation in quality lifestyles and for your efforts to increase the accessibility to and the quality of experiences on our federal lands. 


This document was found at http://www.senate.gov/~energy/outdoorrec/body_outdoorrec.htm