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    Research Note


Visitor Fees in the National Park System:
A Legislative and Administrative History
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In 1947 Secretary of the Interior Julius A. Krug reported that park revenues from all sources totaled only about one-ninth of appropriations for the National Park System. The ratio of income to expenditures increased to one-third the following year, marked by higher postwar fee collection and a significant appropriations cut. [1] But the parks needed more rather than less money to upgrade and expand deteriorating prewar facilities to meet the growing public demand.

The Independent Offices Appropriation Act of 1952, approved August 31, 1951, contained an across-the-board provision with direct application to fee collection in the parks:

It is the sense of the Congress that any work, service,...benefit,...use,...or similar thing of value or utility performed, furnished, provided, granted, prepared, or issued by any Federal agency...to or for any person...shall be self-sustaining to the full extent possible, and the head of each Federal agency is authorized by regulation...to prescribe therefor such fee, charge, or price, if any, as he shall determine...to be fair and equitable taking into consideration direct and indirect cost to the Government, value to the recipient, public policy or interest served, and other pertinent facts, and any amount so determined...shall be collected and paid into the Treasury as miscellaneous receipts... [2]

Because he did not cite it, NPS Assistant Director Thomas J. Allen may have been unaware of this provision when he proposed charging a camping fee in Yosemite Valley the following year. Allen advocated the fee not for revenue, but as a regulatory tool to discourage Californians from monopolizing the campsites year after year. The issue was brought before the Secretary's Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings, and Monuments in November 1952. Horace M. Albright, then a board member, had been sympathetic to campground charges when he was director 20 years earlier and put through a resolution to the desired end: "Resolved, that the Advisory Board recommends that the provision of law prohibiting the collection of fees for the use of campgrounds in the national parks and national monuments be repealed as an aid to better regulation and protection." [3] A dozen more years would pass before the board's recommendation would become a reality, however.

Instead, congressional pressure was applied for higher automobile fees (now generally accepted as "entrance fees"). Director Conrad L. Wirth had appeared before the Interior subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee in January 1952 to seek more NPS staffing for fee collection. A committee staff investigator thereafter looked into the Service's fee activity and called attention to the fact that at Yosemite, for example, there had been no increase since 1931. At the time of the next subcommittee hearing in February 1953, the subcommittee chairman, Representative Ben F. Jensen of Iowa, criticized Interior's dilatory action on a general fee increase proposal, on hold in the Secretary's office since the preceding June. "All members of this subcommittee have gone through the parks," said Jensen, "and we do not feel justified in making the necessary improvements without the collection of more revenue." Wirth hastened to agree that fees should be raised and promised immediate action. [4]

The higher fees were put into effect in mid-1953. Parks with camping now sold 15-day permits and seasonal or annual permits at a higher price; Yellowstone and Yosemite, for example, charged $3 for a car and trailer for 15 days, $6 for a year. Although nothing was done about a campground fee, a two-week time limit was instituted in most areas that summer. [5]

A toll for the Blue Ridge Parkway, planned since the late, was announced in 1955. It and the prospect of a fee for Great Smoky Mountains National Park aroused strong opposition in Virginia and North Carolina, which had donated the lands with the understanding that they would be open freely. In addition, many mountain residents used the parkway for daily travel. Although the proposed toll was only $1 for 15 days and $2 for a year, it was deferred at the request of the House appropriations subcommittee. A second attempt to institute a Blue Ridge Parkway fee in 1958 was likewise shelved. [6]

Despite the 1953 fee increase, the park deficit widened during the decade of the 1950s. In 1956 park receipts were about one-tenth of appropriations. That year marked the inauguration of MISSION 66, a ten-year program of major expenditures to improve facilities throughout the National Park System. Simultaneously, the System continued to expand with new areas whose fees were low or nonexistent. By 1959 receipts had declined to one-fourteenth the level of appropriations. [7]

In Our National Park Policy; A Critical History, commissioned by Resources for the Future, Inc. (chaired by Horace Albright) at the end of the decade, John Ise was critical of the trend:

The deficit has been growing, and as Mission 66 gets into full swing it seems likely to grow further. Does this seem fair, equitable, and wise, or should the visitors to the parks pay a larger proportion of the expenses--more than about 6 per cent in 1959? Is it equitable to assess against the people of the entire country more than nine-tenths of the cost of the parks that relatively few ever see?

Urging a general increase in entrance fees to reduce the general taxpayer's subsidy of the park visitor, Ise suggested that few would be kept from the parks by higher charges. Most of those unwilling to pay more, he believed, were insufficiently motivated to benefit much from their visits anyway and would serve the National Park System better by their absence: "there are too many people in some of the parks, too many particularly who do not really care much for what they see." [8]

As Ise's book was en route to its publication in 1961, Laurence S. Rockefeller, a director of Resources for the Future, was chairing the Government's Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC). ORRRC's report to the President and Congress, Outdoor Recreation for America, appeared in January 1962 and called for "user fees" for specific recreational facilities--such as campgrounds--within Federal areas:

Fees should be charged for those activities which involve exclusive use of facilities or which require the construction of specialized facilities by the government. Fee rates should be calculated to recover a reasonable portion of the cost of administering, operating, and maintaining such facilities...

It is urged that uniformity in user fees be established among agencies on the same level of government and among different levels of government. This fee structure will serve to stimulate provision of similar services by private operators, who will not be faced with competition from free government facilities. [9]

The ORRRC report, which proposed a significant increase in public support for outdoor recreation and Federal assistance from several sources, inspired congressional legislation that year to establish a Land Conservation Fund. The bills introduced contained authority for all recreation-providing Federal agencies to set entrance and user fees. Testifying before the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall estimated that the $3 annual auto permit proposed in the legislation for admission to all Federal recreation areas would yield 20 to 45 million dollars a year toward the acquisition of new recreational lands by the Federal Government and the states. [10]

The legislation was reintroduced in the new 88th Congress in 1963, with some modification in its other proposed funding sources and with the broader objective of a Land and Water Conservation Fund. At the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee hearings on the measure that March, broad support was expressed for the interagency entrance fee concept and for user fees. "I firmly believe that it is equitable for recreationists to pay a reasonable fee for the recreational use of Federal lands and waters...," Secretary Udall testified. "Also, the application of user fees for recreation on Federal lands would be a great stimulus to recreational investment by private enterprise." The Izaak Walton League, among the many organizations backing the bill, presented a statement of its policy on fees:

There should be established systems of charges for recreational use of public lands and waters, such systems to differentiate between fees charged for simple enjoyment of the outdoor environment and those charged for the use of developed facilities or for special services. Revenues from these charges should be utilized to expand opportunities for outdoor recreation, to develop recreational facilities, and to assure proper management... [11]

But some were less enthusiastic about the proposed charges. Spokesmen from western states, including Senator Frank Church of Idaho and Senator Ernest Gruening of Alaska, saw the entrance fees as falling most heavily on their constituents because of the extensive national forest lands and other Federal acreage there. In response to complaints about the bill's lack of specifics as to how the fee system would work, Secretary Udall was forced to admit that the details had not been worked out. Prodded by the subcommittee chairman, Senator Clinton P. Anderson of New Mexico, he later reported that Interior envisioned a conservation car sticker for three to five dollars good for general entry to all Federal areas and supplementary user fees for specially developed sites and facilities. [12]

The National Parks Subcommittee of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee held its hearings on the corresponding House bills in May. There was much discussion of how and for what uses fees would be collected in national forests, and certain easterners joined in opposition to the fee authorization. Representative James H. Quillen, whose Tennessee district included part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, was especially adamant on the subject:

It is my sincere opinion that the placing of any type of entrance admission or any other kind of fee would do violence and damage to this great system of parks and forests and lands, and would impose a burden upon the people of this great country, which is wholly unjustified. I not only oppose such a fee, but I resent the fact that it is even being considered. It looks to me as if this administration has in mind to tax, tax, tax, while I firmly believe that we have too many taxes already, and certainly we do not want to destroy the nature's beauty by imposing a fee before the people can see these beautiful sights which were intended to always be free.

Representative Roy A. Taylor of North Carolina, recalling that his state had donated lands for Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway, declared, "Our national parks and recreational areas are part of our national heritage and should be available without charge to all citizens." [13]

Despite these objections, the House committee reported out a new bill that November providing for an interagency annual vehicle entrance permit costing up to $7. The amount was selected for being just over the existing $6 annual entrance fee at Yellowstone and Yosemite. The committee report estimated entrance and user fee receipts averaging about $65 million a year over the first ten years if the interagency permit were priced at only $5. Six committee members maintained opposition to both entrance and user fees: "Since the Northwest Ordinance of 1787," they stated in the report, "our land laws have historically recognized the principle that the American people own the public domain and shall enjoy it without taxation." [14]

When the reported bill finally reached the House floor in July 1964, Representative John P. Saylor of Pennsylvania, a committee supporter, minimized the cost of the interagency permit. "Although the bill provides for up to a $7 annual fee, the administrative thinking is that the price of such voluntary annual sticker will be in the neighborhood of $3 to $5," he said. "This is the equivalent of the price of one tank full of gasoline." There was concern about admission fees being imposed for access to undeveloped areas, and several members remained unreconciled to the entire idea. "I do not believe the people of the United States want fees to be charged...to go onto land that they already own," said Representative Jack Westland of Washington. But Representative Morris K. Udall of Arizona spoke for the majority ultimately voting for passage: "I cannot believe that the American people are going to blame those in Congress who suggest that those who use the facilities provided by the taxpayers' money should pay a little bit more than those who do not, when we are trying to acquire the parks we need in the East, West, North, and South." [15]

The House-passed bill, H.R. 3846, was referred to the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, which amended it in several particulars. Authority for charging fees for the use of Federal wilderness areas and waters was removed (although fees could be levied for boat launch ramps and moorings). The committee reported the amended bill with a strong endorsement of the general fee concept:

[T]he principle of charging fees for recreation use of Federal areas is neither new nor inequitable. It is in complete accord with the American tradition for full and fair payment for value received...

For more than a decade and a half, the Government has had a policy that where the use of Federal resources conveys special benefits to identifiable recipients above and beyond those which accrue to the general public, such recipients should pay a reasonable charge for the service or product received or for the resource used.

The budget messages of Presidents since 1947 have supported this policy.

The Congress endorsed this basic concept when, in 1951, it enacted title V of the Independent Offices Appropriation Act of 1952 (5 U.S.C. 140), wherein it was stated that services which are rendered to special beneficiaries by Federal agencies should be self-sustaining to the fullest extent possible...

Federal recreation areas have been acquired or developed for the most part from funds appropriated out of the general tax revenues to the U.S. Treasury. People who use these areas receive special benefits which do not accrue to the public at large. In fairness to the general taxpayer, who carries the major burden of support for these areas, the recipient of these special benefits--the people who use the areas for recreation purposes--should pay a modest fee for the resources used.

The payment of fees by persons who obtain special recreational benefits from the use of Federal lands is analogous to the payment of fees by persons who obtain special benefits from grazing livestock or cutting timber on Federal lands. There is ample evidence of the recreation users' willingness to pay for both privately and publicly provided recreation opportunities. Organizations representing recreationists have, without exception, endorsed H.R. 3846 and have supported its enactment with unusual urgency. [16]

The Senate passed the bill on August 12, with only Senator Allen J. Ellender of Louisiana voting against it. [17] The House and Senate subsequently agreed to a conference report reconciling their differences, and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the final version on September 3.

Public Law 88-578, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965 [18] (so designated for its effective date of January 1, 1965), directed to be covered into a separate Treasury account "all proceeds from entrance, admission, and other recreation user fees or charges collected or received by the National Park Service" and other specified bureaus (although existing revenue sharing agreements with states and localities were not to be affected). Also to be credited to the fund were revenues from the sale of surplus Federal property (which had been estimated to bring in about $50 million a year) and Federal taxes on motorboat fuels (supposed to yield some $30 million annually). [19] The President was authorized to designate areas "administered primarily for scenic, scientific, historical, cultural, or recreational purposes" where fees would be charged, with certain specified exclusions: private noncommercial vehicles could not be charged for nation al parkway travel, for example, and fees could not be levied on secondary roads into Great Smoky Mountains National Park unless they were applied on main highways through the park (a practical impossibility). In accordance with the Senate amendments, no fee could be charged for the use of waters, and no entrance fee could be collected at areas without recreation facilities or services provided at Federal expense, precluding charges for wilderness.

The act provided for four classes of visitor fees:

(i) An annual fee of not more than $7 payable by a person entering an area so designated by private noncommercial automobile which...shall excuse the person paying the same and anyone who accompanies him in such automobile from payment of any other fee for admission to that area and other areas...except areas which are designated by the President as not being within the coverage of the fee, during the year for which the fee has been paid.

(ii) Fees for a single visit or a series of visits during a specified period of less than a year to an area so designated payable by persons who choose not to pay an annual fee...or who enter such an area by means other than private noncommercial automobile.

(iii) Fees payable for admission to areas not within the coverage of a fee paid under clause (i)....

(iv) Fees for the use within an area of sites, facilities, equipment, or services provided by the United States.

All fees were to be "fair and equitable, taking into consideration direct and indirect cost to the Government, benefits, to the recipient, public policy or interest served, and other pertinent factors." The fiscal 1929 and 1930 appropriations act provisions restricting NPS campground charges were repealed, as were "all other provisions of law that prohibit the collection of entrance, admission, or other recreation user fees or charges authorized by this Act or that restrict the expenditure of funds if such fees or charges are collected...." In other miscellaneous provisions, no free passes were to be given members of Congress or other Government officials, and no money from fees or the other Land and Water Conservation Fund revenue sources was to be used for publicity purposes.

As a first step in implementing the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, President Johnson issued Executive Order 11200 on February 26, 1965. To the several criteria in the act for designating fee areas it added administrative and economic practicality. Its primary purpose was to place the responsibility for a uniform Federal fee system in the hands of the Secretary of the Interior, which in practice meant the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (BOR).

BOR coordinated preparation of the necessary regulations, which were published in Title 43 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 18. The fee system got underway rather haphazardly late in the 1965 season, and the regulations were revised for greater effectiveness in 1966. In addition to the universal entrance permit dubbed the "Golden Eagle," whose cost was set at the maximum $7 authorization, 30-day temporary permits and day-use permits for single areas were established on a uniform basis. In 1967 user fee criteria were added to the regulations. Sites, facilities, equipment, and services were to be charged for according to (a) the direct and indirect Federal cost of maintenance; (b) the quality and variety of recreational opportunities offered; (c) the charges for comparable government and private facilities elsewhere; (d) the impact of the charge on the potential development of other facilities; and (e) the contributions of state and local governments and private sources to development and maintenance.

On paper, all was now in place for a rational, remunerative Federal system of visitor fees. In practice, the system bore little relationship to the rosy predictions made of it. The task of developing a workable recreational fee program had only begun.

End of Chapter 2

1John Ise, Our National Park Policy; A Critical History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1961), p. 622.

265 Stat. 290.

3Advisory Board Minutes, 27th Meeting, Nov. 17-18, 1952, in Advisory Boards and Commissions office, National Park Service, Washington, D.C.

4U.S., Congress, House, Committee on Appropriations, Interior Department Appropriations for 1953, Hearings, 82d Congress, 2d Session, 1952, pp. 246-47; same for 1954, 83d Congress, 1st Session, 1953, pp. 208-10.

5Ise, Our National Park Policy, p. 622; Interior Appropriations Hearings, 1954, p. 210.

6Ise, Our National Park Policy, p. 626; U.S., Congress, House, Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Land and Water Conservation Fund, Hearings on H.R. 3846, H.R. 3864, et al., 88th Congress, 1st Session, May 27-28, 1963, pp. 60, 64-65.

7Ise, Our National Park Policy, pp. 623-24.

8Ibid., pp. 624-25, 635-36.

9U.S., Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, Outdoor Recreation for America; A Report to the President and to the Congress by the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1962), pp. 168-69.

10U.S., Congress, House, Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Land Conservation Fund, Hearings on H.R. 11172 et al., 87th Congress, 2d Session, July 11-12 and Aug. 8, 1962, pp. 31-32.

11U.S., Congress, Senate, Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Land and Water Conservation Fund, Hearings on S. 859, 88th Congress, 1st Session, Mar. 7-8, 1963, pp. 13, 119.

12Ibid., pp. 30-34, 46.

13House Land and Water Conservation Fund Hearings, 1963, pp. 12-13, 68-69, 80-84.

14House Report 900, 88th Congress, Nov. 14, 1963.

16Senate Report 1364, 88th Congress, Aug. 10, 1964.

17Several years before, Senator Ellender had visited Vicksburg Nation al Military Park, where a 25 cent admission fee was charged at the visitor center. He loudly proclaimed the fee a "gyp" and said it should be discontinued. It was. (Interview with Edwin C. Bearss, Sept. 2, 1982.)

1878 Stat. 897.

19Senate Report 1364.


Last Modified: Tues, Apr 4 2000 07:08:48 am PDT

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