Recreation Fees:

Demonstration Fee Program Successful in Raising Revenues but Could Be Improved

RCED-99-7: Published: Nov 20, 1998. Publicly Released: Nov 30, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the implementation of the recreational fee demonstration program by the National Park Service (NPS), the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), focusing on the: (1) implementation of the program and the fee revenues generated; (2) program's expenditures; (3) extent to which the agencies have used innovative or coordinated approaches to fee collection; and (4) program's effects, if any, on visitation.

GAO noted that: (1) among the four agencies, the pace and the approach used to implement the recreational fee demonstration program have differed; (2) this difference reflects the extent of the agencies' experiences in charging fees prior to the demonstration; (3) nonetheless, each agency has been successful in increasing fee revenues; (4) the four agencies estimated that their combined recreational fee revenues have nearly doubled from about $93 million in fiscal year (FY) 1996 to an about $179 million in FY 1998; (5) of the four agencies, NPS is generating the most fee revenues; (6) for FY 1998, NPS estimates that its fee revenues will be about 85 percent of the total estimated revenues collected by the four agencies at demonstration sites; (7) about 76 percent of the funds available under the program had not been spent through March 1998; (8) thus far, most expenditures have been for repairs and maintenance and the cost of fee collection; (9) the agencies expect to make significant expenditures in the latter part of FY 1998 and in FY 1999; (10) in the longer term, because some sites may have a much greater potential than others for raising revenues, the requirement that at least 80 percent of the fees be retained at the location where they were collected may lead to substantial inequities between sites; (11) some sites may reach the point where they have more revenues than they need for their projects, while other sites still do not have enough; (12) opportunities remain for the agencies to be more innovative and cooperative in designing, setting, and collecting fees; (13) among the agencies, several notable examples of innovation exist at demonstration sites of the Forest Service and the BLM; (14) these innovations have resulted in either more equitable pricing for the visitors, or greater convenience for visitors in how they pay fees; (15) while NPS has been innovative in making fees more convenient for visitors to pay, it has not experimented with different pricing structures to make fees more equitable; (16) coordination of fees among agencies has been erratic; (17) overall, preliminary data suggest the increased or new fees have had no major adverse effect on visitation to the fee demonstration sites; (18) with data from just 1 year, however, it is difficult to accurately assess the fees' impact on visitation; (19) the agencies' surveys indicate that visitors generally support the purpose of the program and the level of the fees implemented; and (20) each agency is planning additional visitor surveys and research in 1998 and 1999.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matter for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: As Congress decides on the future of the fee demonstration program, it may wish to consider whether to modify the current requirement that at least 80 percent of all fee revenues remain in the units generating these revenues. Permitting some further flexibility in where fee revenues could be spent, particularly the fees from high-revenue sites, would provide greater opportunities to address the highest-priority needs of the agencies. However, any change to the 80-percent requirement would have to be balanced against the need to maintain incentives at fee-collecting units and to maintain the support of the visitors.

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In discussing this matter with key congressional committee staff during GAO's most recent assignment (GAO-03-470/April 2003), it became evident that no action would be taken on this recommendation.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should require that the heads of NPS and FWS take advantage of the remaining time under the fee demonstration authority to look for opportunities to experiment with peak-period pricing and with fees that vary with the length of stay or extent of use at individual sites.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In commenting on the report, the Department of the Interior agreed with the general direction of this recommendation. However, both the Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service disagreed with this recommendation. As of September 2001, neither agency has experimented to a significant degree with peak-period pricing or with fees that vary with the length of stay or extent of use at individual sites.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture should direct the heads of the participating agencies to improve their services to visitors by better coordinating their fee-collection activities under the recreational fee demonstration program. To address this issue, each agency should perform a review of each of its demonstration sites to identify other federal recreation areas that are nearby. Once identified, each situation should be reviewed to determine whether a coordinated approach, such as a reciprocal fee arrangement, would better serve the visiting public.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of the Interior has formed an interagency task group with the Department of Agriculture to look at opportunities for greater coordination in the recreational fee demonstration program. The agencies have identified additional fee demonstration sites in which coordination would be possible. As of September 30, 2000, about 30 percent of the demonstration fee managers reported that they have coordinated their fees with other federal, state, and local recreation sites. The agencies are continuing their efforts to identify additional steps to better coordinate their fees at recreation fee demonstration sites.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture should direct the heads of the participating agencies to improve their services to visitors by better coordinating their fee-collection activities under the recreational fee demonstration program. To address this issue, each agency should perform a review of each of its demonstration sites to identify other federal recreation areas that are nearby. Once identified, each situation should be reviewed to determine whether a coordinated approach, such as a reciprocal fee arrangement, would better serve the visiting public.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Agriculture has joined an interagency task group with the Department of the Interior to look at opportunities for greater coordination in the recreational fee demonstration program. The agencies have identified additional fee demonstration sites in which coordination would be possible. As of September 30, 2000, about 30 percent of the demonstration program mangers reported in a survey to GAO that they have coordinated their fees with other federal, state, and local recreational sites. The agencies are continuing their efforts to identify additional steps to better coordinate their fees at recreational fee demonstration sites.

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