Opinion | Energy & Environment

Leave park operations — and fee revenues — to the parks

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

When the government shut down earlier this year, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt used revenues from visitor fees to keep national parks open. The decision was not without controversy.

For instance, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) called out the administration, saying that fee revenues are "not a slush fund" and should be reserved for improving parks and performing overdue maintenance.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office agreed with McCollum - the agency ruled that the Interior Department acted illegally by using fee collections to fund park operations.

No matter which side you agree with, the reality is that revenues from recreation fees have become an important part of national park budgets. With greater public lands needs than ever, the legal bickering over how fee revenues can be used demonstrates the need for clarity. Congress should explicitly grant public lands agencies more flexibility to use fee receipts for their greatest needs to make a lasting difference for our public lands.

Passed in 2004, the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act authorizes five agencies, including the National Park Service, to charge, collect and retain recreation fees on federal lands and waters. So, while Congress has the power of the purse, it has delegated specific authority to parks sites to spend revenues they can generate. Fees can be levied either for entrance to a site or for use of an amenity such as a developed campground.

A pivotal feature of the act, known as FLREA, is how it reroutes parks' revenues. In the past, a campground might earn enough in visitor fees to break even, but all revenues were siphoned off to the black hole of the general treasury. Under FLREA, sites that collect fees can retain and spend 80 percent of their receipts without further appropriation from Congress. Expenditures are limited, however, to certain purposes - including "repair, maintenance, and facility enhancement related directly to visitor enjoyment, visitor access, and health and safety."

The act undeniably creates good incentives for park superintendents to cater to visitors. Managers know they'll be rewarded for providing a quality outdoor experience that attracts visitors. Over the past decade, total revenues collected by federal agencies under FLREA have increased by 42 percent in real terms - from $284 million in 2009 to $404 million in 2018 - contributing nearly as much to conservation and recreation as the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Virtually all of that increase has occurred over the past five years, in lockstep with dramatic increases in visitation to national parks. And some popular parks now receive as much in fee revenues as they do in base appropriations from Congress. 

The question we should be asking, in regard to FLREA, is simple: Who is the appropriate entity to decide how to spend fee collections? While legislative and administrative oversight will always remain critical, the logical answer is park superintendents - the people who dedicate their careers to conserving our public landscapes.

To truly ensure our parks will be well cared for regardless of government shutdowns, partisan politics or new demands on public landscapes, it's time for Congress to clarify and grant flexibility in the recreation fee program. Congress should reform FLREA to explicitly grant public lands managers the authority to spend fee revenues on their greatest needs, as long as they abide by their broader agency mission. In addition, legislators should allow managers to implement and adjust their own recreation fees as needed, for instance, by establishing new and flexible structures like congestion prices or discounted passes for locals.

Political funding squabbles should not come at the expense of our public lands. Empowering local land managers to spend the revenues they have generated on their greatest needs - be it addressing deferred maintenance, increasing visitor opportunities, or funding basic operations - can help provide the resources to care for our shared lands properly.

Hannah Downey is the policy and partnerships coordinator at PERC, the Property and Environment Research Center, a nonprofit institute in Bozeman, Montana, dedicated to improving environmental quality through property rights and markets.

Tate Watkins is a research fellow at PERC.

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