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    Research Note


Visitor Fees in the National Park System:
A Legislative and Administrative History
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The Recreation Fees and Improvements Act of 1982

The several congressional initiatives of 1978-1980 restricting fee collection ]and administrative control over receipts flew in the face of President Jimmy Carter's Office of Management and Budget and Interior Department leadership. On this issue, President Ronald Reagan's appointees agreed totally with their predecessors. Under even greater pressure to cut domestic spending, they saw park fees as a logical way of offsetting general revenue appropriations for this discretionary category of the Federal budget.

Under orders to respond to what Congress had wrought, the Service's legislative office prepared and circulated for comment within the agency a draft "Park and Recreation Revenue Act of 1982" in December 1981. The draft bill would increase the $10 ceiling on the Golden Eagle Passport, make entrance and user fee receipts available to the collecting agency for authorized outdoor recreation functions without further appropriation, make VTS fees available without appropriation for VTS establishment and enhancement only, and repeal inconsistent provisions of existing law, including the general entrance fee freeze and the several park-specific fee prohibitions. [1]

The proposed bypass of the congressional appropriations process was judged unrealistic; it was also inconsistent with the response received from OMB to the Service's fiscal 1983 budget request. In addition to repeal of the freeze and the Golden Eagle ceiling, OMB wanted fee revenues subject to annual appropriations to offset funding from general revenues. It also sought repeal of the legislated criteria for user charges in the 1974 Land and Water Conservation Fund Act amendment. [2]

The bill was revised to have fee revenues, including concession franchise, returned to a special account available for appropriation to the collecting agency; unlike past practice, 20 percent of the revenues would be earmarked for the collecting park or area, while the rest would go for "restoration and improvement of visitor use facilities" generally. The minimum standards for camping fees would be removed, and the Golden Eagle ceiling would go to $25.

Meanwhile, Interior's Policy, Budget, and Administration (PBA) secretariat, traditionally allied with OMB in support of higher fees, was promoting the cause to Secretary James G. Watt:

We feel that a lot more could be done with the concept of User Fees than either the National Park Service or the Office of Management and Budget currently are considering.

1. The User Fee Program must be established in such a way that the NPS, from top to bottom, has the maximum incentive possible to both increase and collect fees. If those fees are completely offset against appropriations, such an incentive disappears.

2. The User Fee Program has not worked well in the past because NPS personnel have not seen any benefits to the Park Service from the fees and often have viewed a fee program as a liability.

3. With proper development, a User Fee Program can move the NPS in the direction of self-sufficiency and substantially, or entirely, free the Park System from the appropriation process. [3]

In commenting on the Service's revised draft bill, PBA declared the $25 Golden Eagle still too inexpensive and favored discontinuation of the annual pass and per-vehicle fee approach as insufficiently productive of revenue. It recommended deauthorization of the Golden Eagle and substitution of general language allowing the Secretary to develop "multiple visit entrance permits" on a per capita basis. It opposed the 20 percent provision as too restrictive. It wanted authority to charge for back-country camping, canoeing, and rafting. So that fee revenues would not be used to offset general appropriations and thus impair the Service's incentive to collect, it proposed an agreement with OMB to hold the NPS budget at the 1983 level (possibly indexed for inflation) for the next five years, during which increases would come from fees. [4]

At a meeting attended by Secretary Watt, Assistant Secretary G. Ray Arnett (Fish and Wildlife and Parks), and Deputy Assistant Secretary William D. Bettenberg (PBA) on January 5, 1982, agreement was reached to rework the bill generally in accordance with PBA's recommendations. [5] The bill was put in final form at OMB after another meeting there with representatives of Interior, Agriculture, and the Corps of Engineers; it was transmitted to Congress on February 22 retitled "Recreation Fees and Improvements Act of 1982."

The transmittal letters to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House, signed by Secretary Watt, Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block, and Secretary of the Army John O. Marsh, Jr., declared the administration bill "necessary for full implementation of the President's program for economic recovery." Noting that existing fee revenues covered only four percent of the cost of public recreation areas and facilities, they estimated an increase to ten percent under the proposed legislation. The bill would accomplish this by

  • authorizing all Federal recreation-providing agencies to collect entrance fees;

  • authorizing entrance permits, including the Golden Eagle, Golden Age, and Golden Access passports, for each visitor 16 or over rather than for carloads, and eliminating the $10 limit on the Golden Eagle;

  • repealing the entrance fee freeze and Mount McKinley transportation fee prohibition in Public Law 96-87, the several park-specific entrance fee prohibitions, the prohibition on national parkway fees and the limitation on Great Smoky Mountains National Park entrance fees in the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, and Section 210 of the 1968 Flood Control Act prohibiting Corps of Engineers entrance fees;

  • repealing the prohibitions on user charges for certain facilities, including picnic tables, unmechanized boat ramps, and primitive campgrounds;

  • authorizing user fees for wilderness areas, national trails, and wild and scenic rivers; and

  • repealing the provision in the fiscal 1981 Interior Appropriations Act requiring visitor fee revenues to be deposited in the Land and Water Conservation Fund, thereby restoring the agency recreation fee accounts for greater collection incentive. [6]

Among the provisions in the bill was one authorizing the several agency heads " to require an admission permit for the occupancy and use of Federal lands for hunting and fishing...." When this reached the responsible congressional committees, reaction was immediate and emphatic. Only four days after its transmittal, Secretary Watt wrote the presiding officers of Congress asking that the bill be withdrawn. The bill had been misunderstood to prescribe Federal hunting and fishing licenses, he said:

That certainly was not the intent of the proposal and we want the record to be absolutely clear on this issue. The provision was included to allow an expansion of the Golden Eagle Passport to cover those areas for which there is a charge for entry into hunting and fishing areas. In other words, we were giving an additional benefit to hunters and fishermen whereby they could use their Golden Eagle Passport in these particular areas without having to pay additional fees.... However, because this provision has been badly misinterpreted, we would request that this legislation be withdrawn to allow us the opportunity to revise the legislation to reflect our true intention.

"Thank you for forcefully bringing to our attention your objections to our recent submission to the Congress on recreation fees..., " Assistant to the Secretary Stanley W. Hulett wrote simultaneously to Senator James A. McClure of Idaho, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "It was our intention to expand the Golden Eagle Passport by allowing its use for entry into federal hunting and fishing areas where entry fees are already charged." [7]

NEXT> The National Park System Fee Dedication and Park Improvement Act of 1982

1Memorandum, Chief, Office of Legislation to NPS Associate Director, Management and Operations, Dec. 4, 1981, NPS Office of Legislation,, Washington, D.C. (hereinafter cited as WASO-170).

2Memorandum, Associate Director Nancy Garrett to Chief, Office of Legislation, Dec. 15, 1981, WASO-170.

3Memorandum, Deputy Assistant Secretary William D. Bettenberg, PBA, to Watt, Dec. 17, 1981, WASO-170.

4Memorandum, Assistant Secretary J. Robinson West, PBA, to Assistant Secretary, Fish and Wildlife and Parks, Dec. 29, 1981, WASO-170.

5Memorandum, James M. Lambe to reviewers, Jan. 17, 1982, WASO-170.

6Letters, Watt, Block, and Marsh to George Bush and Thomas p. O'Neill, Jr., Feb. 22, 1982, with accompanying bill, WASO-170.

7Letters, Watt to Bush and O'Neill, Feb. 26, 1982, WASO-170; letter, Hulett to McClure, Feb. 26, 1982, WASO-170. The explanations given were confused if not disingenuous. Entrance fees were levied in no areas where hunting was permitted. At all areas where entrance fees were charged, including those with fishing, the Golden Eagle already served for admission. The only way use of the Golden Eagle would be expanded for hunters and fishermen was to charge for previously free hunting and fishing areas--the clear purpose of the offending provision.


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

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