STATEMENT OF P. LYNN SCARLETT, ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF POLICY, MANAGEMENT, AND BUDGET, DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE SENATE COMMITTEE ON ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES CONCERNING S. 2473, TO ENHANCE THE RECREATIONAL FEE DEMONSTRATION PROGRAM FOR THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE AND S. 2607, TO AUTHORIZE THE SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR AND THE SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE TO COLLECT RECREATION FEES ON FEDERAL LANDS.

 

JUNE 19, 2002

 

 

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to present the Department of the Interior’s views on S. 2473, a bill to enhance the recreational fee demonstration program for the National Park Service, and S. 2607, a bill to authorize the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture to collect recreation fees on federal lands.  We thank the Committee for the opportunity to discuss this important issue.

 

The Department strongly supports the efforts through S. 2473 and S. 2607 to establish recreation fee authority and, in particular, allow for the reinvestment of the majority of those fees into facilities and services that enhance the visitor experience.  

 

Congress established recreation fee authority in 1965 under the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, and more recently, in 1996, under the Recreational Fee Demonstration (Fee Demo) program.  In enacting these bills, Congress acknowledged that the visitors to federal lands receive some benefits that do not directly accrue to the public at large and that charging a modest fee to that population is both equitable and fair to the general taxpayer.   Congress took that idea one step further when establishing the Fee Demo program for the National Park Service (NPS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Fish and Wildlife Service), and the U.S. Forest Service (Forest Service).   During the 105th Congress, a House Appropriations Committee Report noted that the Fee Demo program was developed in direct response to the federal agencies’ concern over their growing backlog maintenance needs.  Thus, the Fee Demo program allowed participating agencies to retain a majority of recreation fees at the site collected and reinvest those fees into enhancing visitor services.  This authority was deliberately broad and flexible to encourage agencies to experiment with their fee programs.

 

As the Committee is aware, our federal lands boast scenic vistas, breathtaking landscapes, and unique natural wonders.  On these lands, many patriotic symbols, battlefields, memorials, historic homes, and many other types of sites tell the story of America.  Federal lands have provided Americans and visitors from around the world special places for recreation, education, reflection and solace.  The family vacation to these destinations is an American tradition.

 

We want to ensure that the federal lands continue to play this important role in American life and culture.  Fulfilling this mission requires that we maintain visitor-serving facilities and services, preserve natural and historic resources, and enhance visitor opportunities.  Such efforts require an adequate and steady source of funding. 

 

We would like to share some of our experiences and lessons learned through the Fee Demo Program with you and offer several suggestions about the types of provisions that we believe would be important to include in any future recreation fee program.  The agencies did experiment with fees during the demonstration phase.  This experience has provided them with important information about the type of fee program that will meet the intended goal of enhancing the visiting public’s enjoyment of our federal lands.  In addition to continual efforts to evaluate, study, and improve fee programs within individual agencies, the agencies also have made tremendous efforts to coordinate and share experiences among all the participating agencies.  

 

To facilitate coordination and consistency among the agencies on recreation fee policies, the agencies recently created an Interagency Recreation Fee Leadership Council (Fee Council).  The members of the Fee Council from the Department of the Interior include four Assistant Secretaries, four Bureau Directors, and the Director of Congressional and Legislative Affairs.  The USDA is represented by the Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, the Chief Forester for the Forest Service, and the Director of Legislative Affairs for the Forest Service.  As Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management, and Budget, I co-chair the Council along with USDA’s Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, Mark Rey.    The Fee Council is developing its first annual work plan, which tentatively includes coordinating project evaluation and expenditure guidelines and determining what types of joint research projects may be necessary to assist in setting sensible recreation fee policies.

 

The agencies also worked together on the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program Interim Report to Congress, a comprehensive analysis of the Fee Demo Program sent to Congress in April 2002. This process, coupled with input from the Fee Council, has provided an unprecedented opportunity to evaluate the progress of the Fee Demo program.  We would like to share with you today some of the achievements of the program, the lessons learned regarding our implementation of the program, and what we have discovered are the critical elements of a successful future for the recreation fee program.

 

ACHIEVEMENTS

Consider first how the Department has worked with the public to ensure that the Fee Demo program benefits recreationists, the federal lands visitors, and local communities.  Efforts to seek out public input are consistent with Secretary Norton’s “Four C’s” — Communication, Consultation, and Cooperation, all in the service of Conservation.  Given our experience with cooperative decision-making within the Fee Demo program, we believe that any future fee program should foster collaborative opportunities. 

 

At the South Fork of the Snake River Pilot Fee Project, a joint partnership of the BLM, the Forest Service, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and the counties of Bonneville, Madison, and Jefferson, Fee Demo money was used to replace non-functional toilets, expand and elevate the parking lot, and make the facility accessible to individuals with disabilities at Menan Boat Access.  A working group at this site, composed of representatives of the agencies and other stakeholders, allocates revenues and produces a public report illustrating projects and expenditures.  The report is distributed to previous season pass holders, businesses throughout the area, and staff.  Completed projects are listed on the back of annual season passes and a news release is issued.  Throughout the year participating agencies seek input from the public, outfitters and guides, and fishing clubs on what projects to fund with the collected fees.

 

The BLM Eagle Lake Field Office in California entered into a cooperative venture with a local bus company to provide, for a small fee, shuttle service to bring bikes and riders back to their vehicles.  On board the shuttle is an interpreter who explains resource features and sites of interest along the route.  The BLM has established a strong link with the community because local residents frequently ride the shuttle.  This shuttle supports the local economy through the venture with the local bus company and by increasing tourism in the rural area.

 

At Cedar Mesa, Utah, the BLM has used Fee Demo funds to provide support for volunteers and seasonal staff who supervise the various recreation improvement projects.  The BLM has created a strong working relationship with the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association to aid in San Juan River clean-up, which has resulted in removal of almost two tons of trash from the river and its banks over the last two years.  In addition, the BLM worked with three separate service groups -- the Wilderness Volunteers, the Sierra Club, and the American Hiking Association, to mitigate trail damage created by early season flooding.

 

At the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the Fish and Wildlife Service has established a cooperative agreement with the City of Virginia Beach to provide environmental education programming for 34 summer youth camps, serving more than 2,000 young recreationists.

 

At Mount Rainier National Park, the high volume of use at campground facilities had worn down  interpretive facilities, contributed to visitor health and safety problems, and resulted in the general feeling of dissatisfaction of campground users.  In Cougar Rock campground, the 125-seat amphitheater was too small to accommodate current visitation and was determined to be located too close to geo-hazards.  Fee demo funds were used to relocate the facility and increase seating capacity to 300.   Fee demo funds also were used to ensure that the White River Campground restroom facilities could meet peak-season demand.

 

LESSONS LEARNED AND GUIDING PRINCIPLES

Through the fee program, agencies have been able to fund many important visitor projects.  At the same time, the Department also has learned about ways to improve the fee program.  Some concerns expressed about the program include:

 

¨      Recreation fees are not consistent across sites with similar features and facilities

¨      The distinction between recreation fees charged for “entrance”and those charged for “use” is unclear

¨      Use of recreation fees for improvements to facilities and services often is not apparent to the visiting public

¨      The current pass system is confusing to the public

¨      Recreation fees should not be charged in areas with little or no improvements aimed at enhancing the visitor experience

¨      Visitors should not be “nickel and dimed” through too many separate recreation fee charges

 

In response to the criticisms received, the Fee Council has identified seven guiding principles that address these and other concerns and are critical to a successful fee program.  Any long-term fee program should be beneficial to the visiting public, fair and equitable, efficient, consistent, collaborative, convenient, and accountable.  

 

1. Beneficial to the Visiting Public

The first guiding principle is that the ultimate goal of a fee program must be to benefit the visiting public by enhancing the resources, facilities, and programs utilized by those paying the fees.  A majority of fee revenue should be kept at the site where the fee is collected and fees should help provide the sites with adequate resources to enhance and address unmet visitor service needs, reduce the backlog of deferred maintenance, and restore and enhance impacted or endangered resources.  The success of a fee program lies in the delivery of these services, not merely in revenue generation.

 

2. Fair and Equitable

Fees also should be fair and equitable -- they should be affordable for all members of the public and not significantly affect visitation.  Fees should be based on coherent framework that considers the relationship between who pays and who benefits from the services provided by a recreation program.

 

3. Efficient

The third guiding principle is that fees should be collected and administered in a cost efficient, enforceable, and business-like manner. 

4. Consistent

The fourth guiding principle is that a recreation fee system should, where possible, be consistent.  Visitors should expect a similar fee for similar activities, facilities, and services across agencies and in a given geographic area.  The costs and benefits associated with a fee or pass should be clearly illustrated and easily understood by the visiting public. 

5. Collaborative

As you know, collaboration lies at the center of Secretary Norton’s  “Four C’s” — Communication, Consultation, and Cooperation, all in the service of Conservation.  Consistent with this philosophy is the notion that input from local communities, constituencies and other stakeholders is vitally important in establishing reasonable fees.  Wherever possible or appropriate, agencies should coordinate fees with private entities, local, state, and other federal agencies to minimize overlapping costs and simplify fees for the visiting public.

6. Convenient

Fees should be convenient to pay and passes easy to obtain.  A variety of payment and location options (including by credit card, internet, automated fee machines, and vendor sales) should be made available as appropriate and feasible. 

7. Accountable

Finally, agencies should be accountable to the public and Congress. Agencies should collect data and publish annually public documentation showing how the fee program is administered.  Agencies should evaluate fee programs to consider cost of collection, adherence to policy, fiscal safeguards, how well they achieve organizational, site, or community goals, and how fee revenues have been spent to enhance the visitor experience. 

 

THE FUTURE OF THE RECREATION FEE PROGRAM

Through our experience with the Fee Demo program, we now have the knowledge and tools to establish a successful fee program.  Delay could result in a lost opportunity to implement a more productive, streamlined recreation fee system for the future designed to enhance the visitor’s experience.  The Department is ready for that challenge.

 

In addition to the efforts of the individual agencies and the Fee Council, we have a few suggestions on legislative provisions that would adhere to the guiding principles and address some of the criticisms levied at the program.

 

1. The Recreation Fee Program Should Be An Interagency One

We have found that the visiting public does not distinguish between lands managed by different federal agencies.  Enhancing coordination between agencies is extraordinarily important in creating a sensible and efficient fee program with seamless services that is well-understood by the public.  For these reasons, we are willing and ready to take on the challenges of an interagency program. 

 

Although the nature of some agencies makes the collection of fees easier than for others, we believe that the relevant policy question of whether recreation fee authority should be given to an agency is whether the visiting public would benefit from enhanced recreation facilities and other visitor services that would result from such fees being charged.  For example, the Bureau of Reclamation’s 288 lakes accommodate 90 million visits a year.  Just as in the case with other agencies, their visitors could benefit from improvements to facilities and services that could not otherwise be accomplished without recreation fee authority.  As noted above, the BLM, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Forest Service have utilized their fees in creative and productive ways to enhance the visitor experience.  Other agencies outside the Department of the Interior and USDA may also benefit from such a program.  

 

2. An Interagency National Pass Should Be Established

For reasons that include those above, we also should explore the creation of a new interagency national pass that would provide visitors with a convenient and economical way to enjoy recreation on federal lands while at the same time, serve to educate the American public about their federal lands and available recreational opportunities.   We believe that the National Park Passport developed by Mr. Thomas a few years ago is an excellent model for such a program, and we would like to expand on its successes -- the image competition as well as the modern marketing, and innovative, administration provisions.  Therefore, we propose creating a new annual interagency pass would expand the National Parks Passport to include all participating agencies and would consolidate the Golden Passes established under the Land and Water Conservation Act.  By consolidating these passes, the interagency pass would decrease visitor confusion about passes and shift the emphasis to recreation opportunities on our federal lands rather than an agency-centric view.  We envision the interagency pass would include new and expanded standard benefits that are consistent across agencies and more inclusive than benefits under the Golden Eagle Pass; we envision the pass to be provided to seniors at steep discounts and to the disabled community free of charge; and we envision the pass retaining the look and program qualities of the National Park Passport.   The distribution formula of pass revenues would be data-driven, established, and periodically reevaluated through the Fee Council.  We look forward to working with the Committee to determine the appropriate formulas. 

 

3.  An Improved System of Fees to Replace Outdated “Entrance” and “Use” Fees Should Be Created

Each of the agencies have molded and shaped the LWCF definitions of “entrance” and “use” fees differently over the last several decades, thereby blurring the distinction between these fees and  affecting how the Golden passes  are used.  The lack of consistency between and within agencies has led to visitor confusion and frustration.   For this reason, we propose creating a new system of fees that will have consistent application across all agencies. 

 

Instead of an “entrance” fee, agencies would be authorized to charge a “basic recreation” fee only at designated units or areas where a substantial investment has been made by the agency to enhance the visitor experience at that location.  Under this system, restrictions would be put in place to ensure that the visiting public would not be charged if the agency is not making a certain level of investment in visitor services.  All passes established would cover the basic recreation fee at all sites.  Thus, basic recreation activities that were once inappropriately charged a “use” fee would now be covered by the passes.

 

While the Department would like to make as many efforts as possible to streamline the recreation fee system, fairness and equity concerns argue against the elimination of all layering of fees.  The notion behind charging a fee beyond the basic recreation fee is that certain recreation activities require additional attention by agency staff or involve costs that should not be borne by the general public through taxpayer funds or by the rest of the visiting public through the basic recreation fee.  The system must balance fairness and equity principles by carefully considering the relationship between who pays and who benefits.

 

Instead of a “use” fee, as now charged, we suggest that a fee for enhanced services, activities, and facilities be charged as an “expanded recreation” fee.”  The types of activities for which an expanded recreation fee may be charged will, to the extent possible, be consistent across agencies.  Specific prohibitions and guidance will safeguard against blurring the two categories of fees to ensure that: 1) the system is understandable to the public; 2) the public is not “double charged” when enjoying the primary attraction of the site; and 3) passes, which are proposed to cover the basic recreation fees, retain full value.

 

4. Better Reporting on the Use of Fee Revenues Should Be Established

The purpose of the recreation fee program is to improve the visitor’s recreation experience.  Visitor acceptance of fees depends upon: 1) whether improvements to the site are visible to them and, 2) whether a majority of the fee revenues stay at the site visited.  For this reason, the Department would like to develop a meaningful reporting requirement to Congress to ensure that fee revenues are used efficiently and effectively for the benefit of the visiting public.  We also are making efforts to better demonstrate, on site, to the visiting public how and where their recreation fees are being spent and to explore more creative ways to seek public input on visitor projects that fee revenues should fund.

 

5. Authority to Establish Agency Site-Specific and Regional Multi-entity Passes Should Be Provided

A well-structured, appropriately priced regional multi-entity pass can provide certain types of visitors with a value option as well as provide important opportunities for the federal government to partner with state and private entities to promote tourism and improve the experience of their shared visitors.  Both the site-specific and regional multi-entity passes also could provide regular visitors, often residents of nearby communities, with convenient and economical pass alternatives.

 

These concepts result from a great deal of analysis and discussion within the Department and with the Department of Agriculture through the Fee Council.  We believe these concepts would positively contribute to any legislation that moves forward on recreation fee authority.  We look forward to working with the Committee and our interagency partners to further discuss and explore these ideas.

 

I would like to take this opportunity to announce that, in support of the President’s Healthier U.S. Initiative, the National Park Service will waive all entrance fees on June 22-23, 2002.  The National Parks and all our federal lands provide an important context on which Americans are seeking to lead healthier lives.  We hope you will join us this weekend at your nearest National Park. 

 

Mr. Chairman, that concludes my statement.  I would be pleased to answer any questions you or other members of the subcommittee may have.