Recreation Fees:

Demonstration Program Successful in Raising Revenues but Could Be Improved

T-RCED-99-77: Published: Feb 4, 1999. Publicly Released: Feb 4, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the recreational fee demonstration program, focusing on: (1) ensuring that future revenues can be applied to the agencies' highest priority unmet needs; (2) coordinating fees between agencies at demonstration sites that are close to each other; (3) being more innovative in setting fees; and (4) assessing the effect of fees on specific segments of the population.

GAO noted that: (1) the demonstration program gives opportunities to collect new and increased fees to the major agencies that provide the public with recreational opportunities on federal land--the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Forest Service; (2) the four agencies reported that, because of the program, their combined fee revenues have nearly doubled, from about $93 million in fiscal year (FY) 1996 to about $180 million in FY 1998; (3) this extensive new revenue allows such sites to address past unmet needs in maintenance, resource protection, and visitor services; (4) the Park Service and the Department of the Interior recognize that certain sites may be able to quickly fix all of the problems that meet the demonstration program's criteria; (5) providing some further flexibility in the spending of fee revenues would give agencies more opportunities to address their highest-priority needs among all of their field units; (6) the demonstration program was authorized with the expectation that the four agencies would coordinate their fee collection efforts, both among themselves and with state and local agencies, where it made sense to do so; (7) demonstration sites may be reluctant to coordinate on fees partly because the program's incentives are geared towards increasing their revenues; (8) by contrast, because joint fee arrangements may potentially reduce revenues to specific sites, there may be a disincentive among these sites to coordinate; (9) in addition, there is currently no formal mechanism or entity within these agencies charged with pursuing opportunities for more and better coordination; (10) as a result, GAO's review showed that coordination among the agencies occurs infrequently; (11) without such a person or group pursuing opportunities for better coordination, this lack of coordination among the fee sites is likely to continue; (12) the demonstration program also encouraged the four agencies to be innovative in setting and collecting their own fees; (13) GAO found many examples of agencies experimenting with ways to make payment more convenient; (14) however, GAO found fewer examples of the agencies experimenting with different pricing structures that could make the fees more equitable; (15) of the 206 sites in the demonstration program in FY 1997, 58 percent had increases in visitation, 41 percent had decreases, and 1 percent were unchanged; and (16) the demonstration has brought millions of additional dollars to recreation areas across the country with little or no impact on visitation patterns.

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