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Pay to play: a rationale for user fees.

1987 ice storm in the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia sent thousands of trees crashing down across some of the East's most popular hiking trails. It took years to clear what "looked like a war zone," says Nantahala National Forest district ranger Ronnie Raum. "If it hadn't been for volunteers, the trails would still be closed. In essence, the district didn't have a trail budget. "

The last 15 years have brought a stream of similar complaints from federal, state, and local park managers. Many feel hopelessly unable to maintain current facilities, much less expand. Forest Service estimates predict a doubling of demand for forest recreation activities like hiking, backpacking, and developed camping between now and the year 2040.

Will there ever be a way out of the funding dilemma?

In the last decade, sentiment has grown for entrance charges and user fees as a means of helping restore recreation funding mangled by budget deficits. Research consistently backs up what recreation officials in fee areas have known for years: The public is willing to pay.

At times, illustrations of that contention can be startling. Last summer, a car pulled up to a Skyline Drive entrance at Shenandoah National Park, and a young man held out the $5 entrance fee to the Park Service toll taker. Noticing an elderly woman beside the driver, the attendant waved the money back and said, "If your guest is over 62, you both get in free."

"I'll be glad to pay," the visitor replied, sounding disappointed.

"You'd be surprised how many times that happens," says Shenandoah ranger Jeanie Mitchell. "We get people here who really feel that their money is supporting a safe haven, both for wildlife and people from the city."

Nevertheless, fee advocates are frustrated. Recreation fees, especially on the federal level, are an idea whose time is coming-but never seems to arrive.

Some movement has occurred, but the trend to new or increased recreation fees for national parks and national forests is "going so slowly, it's almost imperceptible at this point," says Ken Cordell, The public favors recreation fees as long as they result in facilities like this ski hut near Aspen, Colorado. a project leader in recreation research at the Southeastern Forest Experiment Station in Athens, Georgia.

The biggest recent event in the fee arena came with passage of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987. This law amended the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, raising recreation fees for a number of agencies, including the National Park Service and Forest Service, and placing the revenues in special Treasury accounts instead of the general fund. Except for the National Park Service, those funds are appropriated back to the agencies for "activities related to resource protection" at outdoor recreation areas.

In 1989, the Bush Administration undertook an additional effort to amend the Land and Water Conservation Fund, this time to permit the Forest Service to spend money for "operation

. .and management of recreation facilities." This proposed law was never introduced, but it would have created new user and entrance fees at some less developed camping and picnicking areas, boat launch sites, managed parking lots, and specified developed recreation areas. Instead, the Forest Service shifted focus to another bill, says Gene Zimmerman, legislative affairs staffer for the agency. This new legislation was approved by the House but rejected by the Senate. Had it passed, it would have set up a test on 12 national forests to see whether recreation fees could offset the loss of revenue if the agency were to end below-cost timber sales, which have drawn fire as a waste of taxpayer money. The bill would also have allocated $10 million to create new recreational opportunities in forests where below cost sales were ended. The agency wanted to determine whether the resulting recreation revenue would match the money generated by timber, both in terms of the 25 percent of timber revenue returned to county governments and the remaining 75 percent that goes to the U.S. Treasury.

But the test required the authorization of new fees contained in the 1989 bill, the one that was never introduced. Lacking those fees-and the assurance that $10 million in recreation improvements would actually wind up in the budget-the test legislation was "dead in the water,- says Forest Service public affairs staffer Chris Holmes. Unfortunately for fee advocates, the legislation muddied the issue of user fees by linking it to the controversy over below-cost timber sales. "That may have been an error," says Dan DuBray, press secretary for Congressman Ron Marlenee, a Republican from Montana. Marlenee and the rest of that state's delegation opposed the legislation primarily because of the impact it would have had on the timber economy. Chris Holmes captures the ambiguity of the situation for fee proponents: "The issue with this legislation is balance between timber and recreation, not below-cost timber sales or user fees per se. We need to change the emphasis in some forests to recreation, and the appeal here is that recreation fees can stabilize the revenues flowing to the counties and the agency, without new costs to the Treasury."

Even if the legislative choice had been a clear one between fees or no fees, Holmes points out that the bill came up in an election year, an unlikely time for fees to be considered.

"I can't explain it," says Joe Roggenbuck, fee researcher and forestry professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. "Congress must just not believe us. Study after study says recreationists of all kinds, including wilderness hikers, would pay to support maintaining agencies. "

Perhaps more importantly, fees have become a growing part of state, local, and private recreation and nature-preservation programs. A variety of recent studies document the continuing decline of state and federal recreation funding-in amount and reliability-and a resulting trend to greater reliance on fees. Politicians on the federal level may still be saying no, but in state, local, and private parks, the fee paying public is saying yes.

A number of fee programs-geographically widespread-have attracted attention because of the one thing they share: success. (See "The Fee Areas" on page 54.)

Proponents say these programs illustrate the continued promise that fees can work on a nationwide scale. Managers of fee systems claim high rates of compliance and substantial public support, sentiment bolstered by a recent survey in the Midwest showing that 91 percent of public recreation agency managers sampled report favorable or neutral reaction to fees.

Proponents add that fee areas are textbooks for successful strategies on the hows and whys of fees. Probably the single biggest factor in public support for a given fee is whether the charge directly benefits the recreation area. Success involves making a strong connection between the fee and the quality of the facilities. The need to establish that link lies behind efforts to close the funding loop by dedicating recreation revenue to recreation purposes.

Vern Hartenburg was superintendent of a park district near Minneapolis in 1984 when the state started a licensing program for cross-country skiers. "People who are willing to pay want to help trails," he says, "so they always ask if the license fee goes directly to guarantee better ski trails."

Hartenburg couldn't respond affirmatively to them because the fee isn't dedicated, a term used when revenue returns to the park or agency that collects it. But enough of the fees are returned to the cross-country trail program, says Hartenburg, that the "level of license-fee acceptance in Minnesota is very high."

Politically, dedicating the revenues from fees poses problems. Fee proponents say legislators are loathe to give up their control of the purse strings, so they resist fees dedicated to predetermined purposes. Without legislation requiring fees to return to recreation, fee advocates "are skeptical that fee revenue would ever find its way back to the parks," says Mike Lambe of the National Park Service's public affairs staff.

Legislators have a different view. "Returning recreation fees to recreation projects is a good theory," says Dan DuBray for Montana Congressman Marlenee, "but the budget constraints of the agencies would start cannibalizing that money."

Advocates counter that the cannibalizing usually works in the other direction. "Even if agencies are successful at having fees dedicated to them," says Ken Cordell, "they have to be sure that their subsequent budget isn't reduced by the amount they bring in. That happens a lot. The public willingness to pay is based on improving recreation, not on creating a new source of revenue for government to divide up as it sees fit."

Fee-area managers say fee-bolstered budgets make the difference between disappointment and a recreation experience that inspires public support. When littering or vandalism occurs, the problems are discovered and remedied more quickly in parks where fees help assure adequate staffing.

The irony is that visitors to fee areas also tend to litter less. "Where people contribute their own money, they seem to take better care of things," says Norman Brunswig, sanctuary manager at Francis Beidler Forest in South Carolina and assistant director of the Audubon sanctuary system.

The survey of public-recreation managers cited earlier found that nearly 70 percent of those responding say that paying a fee makes recreationists appreciate the activity more.

"It's interesting," agrees Hawk Mountain curator Jim Brett in Pennsylvania. "We have very little litter and vandalism, and that's compared to trashed public trails just a few miles away." North Carolina's Grandfather Mountain reports the same situation.

Hikers at Grandfather pay trail fees and Nordic skiers buy day passes or ski licenses for the same reasons hunters do. They see that the fee improves their recreation experience.

For all the benefits that flow from fees, the managers say they encounter a small minority of users who think parks, trails, and good maintenance ought to be free for taxpayers.

Countering that expectation, Norman Brunswig of Beidler Forest says, "If the people who really use parks think they aren't worth anything, don't be surprised if disinterested taxpayers agree with them. If you won't contribute to a facility you use, why should the general public care?"

Ken Cordell says, "Lawmakers obviously think their constituents will feel they're being asked to pay twice. I don't know who they're listening to, but they aren't hearing the people our surveys are sampling. For anyone but nearby residents, a park fee is going to be one of the smallest expenses of any visit.

Fee advocates speculate that there may simply be a difference of opinion between visitors surveyed at recreation sites and those who live near national forests. "People with national forests in their backyard don't want to hear about fees for everything," says the agency's Gene Zimmerman.

The Audubon Society policy brings that issue into focus for Brunswig. "On a number of our sanctuaries, we discourage public use and charge no fees. Where public access is possible numbers of professionals to work wherever they happen to be at the moment. Someday, business and pleasure may be combined to the point where families can go for long trips to recreation areas without sacrificing work.

All this good guessing comes to nought if the government can't do anything about it. The Forest Service sees a need for many more tourist accommodations, including hot water, flush toilets, and paved, handicapped accessible trails. But it already has put off several hundred million dollars' worth of maintenance on what it already has.

At the same time, says Robert L. Anderson, a resources consultant and AFA board member in Montana, there seems to be renewed official interest. "I see an increase in the appreciation of recreation values," he reports.

Recreation comes relatively cheap, at least in environmental terms. Impacts on natural systems from most outdoor recreation and wilderness uses are minimal compared to more consumptive uses such as lumbering or mining," says the Forest Service in its RPA analysis. Recreation is one of the multiple uses that allow managers to keep their options open over the very long term. And as anyone wise will tell you, keeping your options open is the best way to plan for uncertainty. "How many of those wholehearted conservationists who berate the past generation for its short-sightedness in the use of natural resources have stopped to ask themselves for what new evils the next generation will berate us?" asked Aldo Leopold in the October 1925 issue of this magazine.

Leopold wasn't one of the Forest Service's greatest visionaries for nothing. AF
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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Johnson, Randy
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1991
Previous Article:Let Rover tote it.
Next Article:The playwright who planted trees.

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