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    Research Note


Visitor Fees in the National Park System:
A Legislative and Administrative History
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In reviewing the turbulent history of visitor fees in the National Park System, several observations and conclusions may be drawn.

Fees have almost always been controversial, with different parties on different sides at different times. Congress initially supported fees as a way of making the parks more nearly self-supporting. In the 1920s Representative Louis C. Cramton, chairman of the Interior appropriations subcommittee, reversed this policy; although failing to drastically cut the equivalent of entrance fees, he succeeded in prohibiting campground charges. In the 1930s the subcommittee leadership supported the extension of entrance fees, and in the early 1950s it pressed hard for more fee revenue. The Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965 was preceded by a broad consensus on the fee concept. In the last decade the consensus eroded, with Representative Phillip Burton, chairman of the Interior and Insular Affairs subcommittee on parks, leading the anti-fee forces.

In the executive branch, successive administrations as represented by their budget bureaus have generally favored fees as a means of offsetting appropriations from general revenues. The budget office opposed Cramton's fee reduction plan and urged campground charges in the 192Os, requested the extended fee schedule a decade later, and moved forcefully for more and higher fees in the Carter and Reagan administrations. Political party affiliations have played no noticeable role in positions taken on the fee issue: Cramton, a Republican, and Burton, a Democrat, held parallel views, as did the Carterites and the Reaganites.

There has been a significant shift in the type of visitor fees favored over time. Although some pains were taken to define them as permits for the use of park roads and thus "user fees," the original automobile permits were de facto entrance fees for all coming to the parks by car--originally a minority, but soon the great majority. Fees for Government-operated campgrounds, ultimately the most widely employed user fees, were effectively prohibited in the parks between 1927 and 1965 and were not systematically instituted until 1970. This was curious, in that campsites were and are specific benefits given certain visitors to the exclusion of others for particular periods, and thus seemingly more susceptible to fees than parks as a whole. Today there is virtually no opposition to the principle of campground charges, and although some complaints have been heard about recent increases, Congress has made no move (since 1973) to halt or freeze camping fees. In general, these and other user fees for specific facilities are more politically palatable than entrance fees, there being greater reluctance to allow charges for mere entry to public property. The 1979 freeze on entrance fees has left user fees the only recourse for increasing revenues from the visiting public--an unfortunate development from the standpoint of income, in that entrance fees are significantly more profitable.

How has the National Park Service stood on visitor fees? Outwardly, of course, it has had to reflect the views of the Interior Department, which reflects the views of the President, as represented by the Office of Management and Budget (formerly Bureau of the Budget). So the Service has always supported the fee concept--in public.

In reality, the Service has tended to regard fees at best as a necessary evil. After 1918, when fee receipts were taken from its control, placed in the general Treasury, and made subject to congressional appropriation, the Service would have gladly done without most fee collection had Congress and the executive allowed. Fee revenues equaled a generally decreasing portion of the Service's budget and so carried progressively little weight at budget justification time. Despite certain fringe benefits, collection was often a nuisance and seldom enhanced public relations.

The dedication or earmarking of visitor fees to the Land and Water Conservation Fund in 1965 insured that revenues would go to a cause supported by the Service, but not necessarily to the Service. Between 1972 and 1980 NPS revenues went to a special account for appropriation back to the Service--the closest the bureau would come to regaining control over its income. Even this did not generate much enthusiasm for fee collection, however. Notwithstanding disclaimers, the presence of fee receipts would inevitably prejudice administration budget requests and congressional appropriations from general revenues: money taken in through fees tended simply to offset money that would have been forthcoming otherwise. Unless the Service were allowed to retain and spend its income secretly--a political impossibility--there was no escaping this wholly natural tendency.

In its action on the Service's fiscal 1980 budget request, OMB attempted to provide a genuine incentive for fee collection: it slashed the amount requested and told the Service to make up the difference. Had Congress not reacted by freezing the entrance fees, that draconian tactic might have worked. Anything less appears unlikely to.

End of Chapter 7


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

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