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    Research Note


Visitor Fees in the National Park System:
A Legislative and Administrative History
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The 1968 Land and Water Conservation Fund Act Amendment

The Land and Water Conservation Fund was supposed to realize an average $65 million a year over the first ten years from visitor fees, assuming the Golden Eagle permit were priced at only $5. With the permit actually priced 40 percent higher, revenues should have been significantly greater. Instead, they were less-much less, with no prospect of rising anywhere near the forecasted figure.

In 1967 the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation hired a consulting firm, Arthur D. Little, Inc., to study the problem and come forth with recommendations. The Little report, submitted that December, advocated greater emphasis on advance sales of the Golden Eagle and greater availability of the permit at commercial outlets and post offices, with a major advertising campaign to promote its sale. It proposed a complicated system of permits for single areas and single day visits costing insignificantly less than $7, the object being to encourage general purchase of the Golden Eagle in advance. Heavy enforcement, including "impounding of vehicles improperly present in Federal recreation areas," would further compliance. If its recommendations were adopted, the Little report suggested that annual fee income could be raised from an estimated $12 million in 1969 to $33 million--still far short of what was predicted at the outset of the program. [1]

In February 1968 the House and Senate Interior committees held hearings on bills amending the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act. Their primary objective was to bring new revenue into the shaky fund; Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas leasing receipts were earmarked for this purpose. During the legislative process there was much discussion of the inadequacies of the visitor fee system that had originally been envisioned as the fund's major revenue source. Of the several fee collecting bureaus, only the National Park Service had produced enough money to justify its participation; the Corps of Engineers was least supportive of the major recreation area managers.

"I just do not believe it is equitable for the National Park Service...to have to use its moneys that it collects, and believes in collecting them, to help finance operations by the Corps of Engineers," said Representative Wayne N. Aspinall of Colorado, chairman of the House Interior Committee, at the House hearing. He opposed pooling the fee revenues, proposing instead that each agency's receipts be kept in a separate account for its exclusive benefit. Spencer M. Smith of the Citizens Committee on Natural Resources dissented, fearing that such an arrangement would exacerbate interagency competition. Representative Roy A. Taylor, now chairman of the Parks and Recreation Subcommittee, reiterated his general opposition to entrance fees while complaining, with Representative James A. McClure of Idaho, that the universal $7 permit was too great a bargain from a revenue standpoint. At the corresponding Senate hearings, Senators A. S. Mike Monroney and Fred R. Harris of Oklahoma were especially negative about fees for Corps of Engineers reservoir access and facilities. [2]

Asked to comment on the proposed abolition of the interagency fee system after the hearings, the National Park Service straddled the issue:

We prefer the present provision of law with respect to fees. In particular we believe that a single sticker admitting the public to recreation areas without regard to administrative jurisdiction is desirable and in the best interest of the public. However, we would not object to the amendment in question inasmuch as a [Service] fee system could still be instituted... It would be our intent that fees ear marked under this provision be used to finance State and Federal planning assistance and for National Park System and wilderness planning which relate directly to the improvement and enhancement of outdoor recreation. [3]

The Interior Department, to which the Service's comment was addressed, took a less equivocal stand in officially responding to Chairman Aspinall on the House committee's proposed amendments:

This Department strongly believes that the present language of the land and water conservation fund, which encourages uniform inter-agency approach, as exemplified by the "Golden Eagle" program, be allowed to continue for at least 2 more years until it has had a 5-year trial period, and that it then be reassessed...

This administration is philosophically committed to reasonable user charges for Government services as evidenced by the President's memorandum to heads of departments and agencies of May 17, 1966, entitled "User Charges for Government Service"...

If the uniform system were to be deauthorized, Interior requested language requiring all agencies to charge recreation fees whenever economically feasible:

Unless this is done, the private sector would be seriously discouraged from providing recreational facilities such as private camp, picnic, trailer, and similar facilities if they must compete with free Federal facilities. It is most important in our opinion that the Federal fees be set at a rate that does not disadvantage the private operator or States and local public agencies which charge for recreation areas under their jurisdiction. [4]

In a simultaneous communication to Aspinall, the Bureau of the Budget conceded that visitor fee revenues had fallen short of expectations and that experience had shown the impracticality of collecting at some areas. "Because of both these factors," it wrote, "we are asking the Federal agencies, under the leadership of the Department of the Interior, to reevaluate the present fee system with the objective of devising a revised system" that would be internally consistent, widely applicable, and more profitable. The Budget Bureau supported Interior's request for a two-year extension of the present system while this review was in process. [5]

Within Interior, the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife had expressed concern that the proposed separate bureau accounts for fee receipts would be prejudicial to regular appropriations, despite a disclaimer of such an effect in the House committee's bill. (The Park Service, whose much greater receipts could enable it to profit far more from this arrangement, was evidently willing to take this chance.) The Budget Bureau came out against the separate account provision: "[It] would seem to have little practical value and would substantially further complicate administration of the Fund." [6]

On March 29 the Senate committee reported its bill, which left the existing fee system intact. Its report restated its commitment to the concept of visitor fees, while accepting the need for a subsequent review of the system then in effect:

[T]he committee recognizes the fact that, in practice, the fee system under the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act has called forth public opposition and been the subject of controversy in some areas. It has been asserted that the costs of collection exceed the amount of revenues derived from them.

This assertion appears to be open to question, particularly since personnel engaged in collection of fees usually also perform other functions at Federal outdoor recreation facilities. In addition, outdoor recreation officials report that the public tends to take far better care of areas where fees are charged than where admission and use is free.

In view of the disagreements as to the facts and the controversy as to the policy, the committee believes the entire fee system under the act should be the subject of comprehensive legislative review. This bill, which is in the nature of emergency legislation to provide aid to the States and Federal agencies to save their outdoor recreation programs, is not the proper legislative vehicle for such consideration, the committee believes.

Therefore, the fee system will be given the full and careful study required in separate legislation. [7]

The bill reported by the House committee a month later provided for repeal of the interagency fee system effective April 1, 1969. The House committee's report reviewed the situation as it had developed and justified the position taken:

When the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act was passed in 1964, it was expected that receipts from the sale of annual automobile permits and from admission and user fees would total nearly $60 million by the fourth year of operation of the fund.... Current indications are that they will do well to reach $10½ million, or 18 percent of this amount, in spite of the fact that the automobile permit (the so-called Golden Passport) is such a tremendous bargain that there have been complaints that some of its users spend weeks and even months in the areas to which it applies for a price of only $7 and are, therefore, not carrying a reasonable share of the costs involved.

Nearly 75 percent of the admission and user fees that are received are collected by the Department of the Interior and 20 percent by the Department of Agriculture.... In fact, two-thirds of all the fees collected come through the National Park Service alone.

This is a great disappointment to members of the committee, for it means two things -- (1) that the only real effort that is being put into carrying out the intent of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act is that of the National Park Service, notwithstanding the great recreational opportunities that are provided by installations of the Corps of Engineers and other Federal agencies, and (2) that a large segment of the American public is oblivious to the fact that it costs money to supply outdoor recreation facilities that every individual can enjoy and would rather see them supported entirely from public sources of revenue than contribute a small fraction of their cost. Add to this that some agencies estimate that they expend as much collecting the fees in certain areas as they take in, and it is clear that something is radically wrong.

Notwithstanding all this, however, the committee has regretfully concluded that the attempt to find a uniform Government-wide fee system should be abandoned beginning April 1, 1969; that responsibility for fixing and collecting fees should be returned to the individual agencies and departments...; and that the fees collected by each agency should be earmarked for appropriation for its own use. It is the intent of the committee that appropriations from this source shall be without prejudice to appropriations from other sources--in other words, that the agencies collecting fees shall not be punished by having their regular appropriations cut back and those which fail to collect fees shall not be rewarded by having their regular appropriations increased to make up for their failure to collect. [8]

On the House floor, Representative Aspinall chastised those who had undermined the existing fee system and spoke positively of the incentive to individual agencies provided by his committee's amendment:

I regret that it seems to be appropriate to abandon the existing fee program, but unfortunately those who enthusiastically support expansive and expensive outdoor recreation projects are apparently unwilling to make any significant effort to make this aspect of the program function as it should. The existing fee program has not worked well to date and I have no reason to believe that the future will be much brighter. I believe that, under the fee system recommended by the committee, the collecting agency would be encouraged to develop the most effective program possible if the fees collected are returned to it as a supplement to its regular appropriations.

The House and Senate passed their respective bills, which were finally reconciled by a conference committee report agreed to on July 2. Another Oklahoman, Representative Ed Edmondson, spoke out against any entrance fees before the final vote, but the compromise accorded essentially with the House committee version allowing each agency to set its own fees. The repeal date for the interagency system was extended to April 1, 1970: "This will give the administration an extra year in which to satisfy its critics, if it can do so, that the Government-wide system of user and admission fees can be made to work," said Aspinall in speaking for the compromise. [10]

The resulting Public Law 90-401, approved by President Johnson July 15, 1968, rescued the Land and Water Conservation Fund by authorizing the addition of sufficient revenues from Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas leasing to bring the fund to a total of $200 million annually. More relevant to the present study is its language on visitor fees. Although it repealed the authority for the universal fee system in the original Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, by setting the effective date more than a year and a half ahead it left open the door for reconsideration. In lieu of the repealed authority, the act provided clear support and at least theoretical incentive for fee collection by individual agencies:

It is not the intent of the Congress by this repealer to indicate that Federal agencies which have under their administrative jurisdiction areas or facilities used or useful for outdoor recreation or which furnish services related to outdoor recreation shall not exercise any authority they may have, including authority under section 501 of the Act of August 31, 1951..., or any authority they may hereafter be given to make reasonable charges for admission to such areas, for the use of such facilities, or for the furnishing of such services. Except as otherwise provided by law or as may be required by lawful contracts..., all fees so charged shall be covered into a special account under the Land and Water Conservation Fund and shall be available for appropriation, without prejudice to appropriations from other sources for the same purposes, for any authorized outdoor recreation function of the agency by which the fees were collected. [11]

For one agency, the Corps of Engineers, this provision quickly became a dead letter. Thanks to Representative Edmondson, the Flood Control Act of 1968 was enacted on August 31 with a Section 210 prohibiting entrance fees at all Corps recreation areas as of April 1, 1970. [12] On the basis of the act's legislative history and a subsequent resolution by the House Public Works Committee, the Corps discontinued user fees immediately and entrance fees that October, much to the chagrin of those still hoping for continuation of the interagency system.

NEXT> The 1970 Land and Water Conservation Fund Act Amendment

1"Marketing Study and Recommendations Concerning Federal Recreation Area Permit and Fee System," Report to Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, December 1967.

2U.S., Congress, House, Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Land and Water Conservation Fund Act Amendments, Hearings on H.R. 8578 et al., 90th Congress, 2d Session, Feb. 6, 7, 21 and Mar. 4, 1968, pp. 162-63, 168, 175, 183-84; U.S., Congress, Senate, Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Land and Water Conservation Fund Act Amendments, Hearings on S. 1401 et al., 90th Congress, 2d Session, Feb. 5, 6, and 21, 1968, pp. 16-31.

3Memorandum, Assistant to the Director Frank E. Harrison to Legislative Counsel, Office of the Solicitor, Mar. 21, 1968, in Legislative History, P.L. 90-401, Interior Law Library.

4Letter, Assistant Secretary Harry R. Anderson to Aspinall, Mar. 26, 1968, in House Report 1313, 90th Congress, Apr. 24, 1968.

5Letter, Assistant Director Wilfred H. Rommel to Aspinall, Mar. 26, 1968, in House Report 1313.

6Memorandum, Acting, BSFW, to Legislative Counsel, Mar. 22, 1968, in Legislative History, P.L. 90-401; Rommel to Aspinall, Mar. 26, 1968.

7Senate Report 1071, 90th Congress.

8House Report 1313.

9Congressional Record, May 23, 1968, p. H4190.

10Ibid., July 2, 1968, p. H5898.

1182 Stat. 354.

1282 Stat. 746.


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

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