Initially, the BLM had minimal fee sites and relied heavily on volunteer payment of the fees, which were deposited in steel pipe safes, some of which are still in use. Fees were calculated to recover a reasonable portion of the cost of administering, operating, and maintaining such facilities. However, managers soon discovered that user fees were not enough to cover costs, and started to rely more and more on Congressional funds. Appropriations ballooned from $2 million in 1962 to $30 million in 1996.
In 1985, a presidential commission issued a report that once again asked the federal and state agencies to start charging fees to recover a reasonable portion of operation costs for recreation sites. A few years later, fees that were normally deposited in the Land and Water Conservation Fund were put into special treasury accounts for each agency, and then authorized to be reappropriated back to the agencies for resource protection and recreation management. In 1989, Congress tied the reappropriations back to the particular site, but with a ceiling of $1.5 million a year for the entire agency. In 1995, the BLM was successful in increasing that ceiling to $4 million, even though collections only reached $2.5 million that year. Recreation fee sites increased from 160 to 204 in 1995.
In the past few years, visitor use of federal recreation sites has been skyrocketing, and agencies have not had the money to respond to the increase in visitor needs. Around 1995, the National Park Service started lobbying Congress for the right to raise their fees to decrease a huge backlog of unfinished construction and maintenance projects. Congress responded with legislation which authorized the Recreation Fee Demonstration Project. This legislation directed three other federal agencies (USDA Forest Service, BLM, and US Fish and Wildlife Service) to join the Park Service to "test the collection, retention, and reinvestment of new admission and user fees" at up to 50 selected demonstration sites. In 1997, that limit was raised to 100 new sites per agency.
Unlike existing fees where the BLM is allowed to retain 15 percent of total receipts at the sites (the other 85 percent following that circuitous route from the recreation site to the U.S. Treasury and then back to the districts in appropriations), 100 percent of the new fees collected are retained at the BLM site where the fees are collected. The BLM is attempting to evaluate the impact fee collection and retention in pilot areas have on visitation levels, sales operations, volunteer support, customer satisfaction, and the local economy.
In fiscal year 1997, the agency implemented 13 projects in 7 western states. In fiscal year 1998, that amount will increase to roughly 30 sites.
The funds generated by the project may be used for "the operation, maintenance, and improvements to enhance recreation opportunities and visitor experiences." The agency is requesting visitor input and comments, and will evaluate the success of the program partially by customer satisfaction.
Each manager with a project in their area is responsible for writing a business plan. The template given to the managers to help them with the plans stresses that the primary objectives of the projects are "increased quality public service and resource protection." They state that they are simply exploring a new way to pay for them.
At first, each site was allowed to keep 100 percent of the fees collected after they repaid Congress 104 percent of what was collected in FY 1995. That restriction was soon changed to FY 1994, and then finally abolished.
Managers set their user fee price by either the "cost recovery method," or a "fair market valuation" method, it is their choice. The cost recovery method works by taking how much the manager estimates the project will cost to implement and run, and making it equal the number of estimated paying customers multiplied by an unknown. This unknown is the suggested price. Alternatively, managers can set their price based on what the market will bear in their particular area, and with their particular customers.
We evaluated all of the business plans for the BLM's Recreation Fee Demonstration Projects already implemented by the agency, and asked the following questions:
The Paria Canyon/Coyote Buttes site on the Arizona-Utah border implemented a memorandum of understanding between themselves, the Arizona Strip Interpretive Association (a local recreation group), and Northern Arizona University. The interpretive association handles public information, graduate students at the university handle reservations, permits, fee collections, and some physical and social monitoring, and the BLM provides site enhancements, resource protection projects, and fee demonstration project reporting. The students just completed a Paria Canyon web page, where potential visitors can register and pay their fees, or just gather information about the site.
The university pays the association at least 5 percent of fees collected, and the BLM all fees in excess of both their own and the association's costs each quarter. The association is allowed to keep up to 40 percent of gross receipts to cover their own costs, but can recoup up to $7,000 above that if there is a shortfall.
The Red Rocks Canyon site near Las Vegas, Nevada has a partnership with their local interpretive association. The association runs the book store at the visitor center, and so was the obvious choice for fee collectors. This made things easier for the agency, which did not have to hire any additional employees. The association gets reimbursed its entire operation and maintenance costs, salaries, cash register and a management fee of 6 percent of gross receipts.
Three of the new sites have had to partner with other federal, state and local agencies because they shared management of river front property. For example, the Colorado River semi-developed camping site near Moab, Utah has a partnership with San Juan County to collect and receive fees and manage the site. Grant County is paying $33,000 for construction of camping areas, using Americorps volunteers to construct it. They wanted neighboring Forest Service and National Park Service sites to join the partnership, but they declined, perhaps because they wanted to take advantage of collecting fees in their own areas.
A 62-mile stretch of the South Fork of the Snake River in Idaho is a partnership between the BLM, Forest Service, Idaho Departments of Fish and Game and State Parks and Recreation, and Jefferson, Madison and Bonneville Counties. One of the snags these agencies have inevitably run up against is how to distribute the fees to the various agencies. This site has still not distributed fees that were collected in the summer of 1997.
Finally, the Deschutes River in Oregon is a partnership between the Oregon Department of State Parks, and area vendors. The partnership between the agency and the state was necessary because both agencies have user fees for the same stretch of river, and they did not want people to have to double pay. In FY 1997, this was solved by putting a BLM stamp onto state park permits. The following year, the BLM will have their own pass, but both agencies will honor the others' passes.
Passes for the Deschutes River Project are purchased at local area vendors, as well as large, statewide sporting goods stores. However, permits can be purchased on site from the BLM if visitors either forget to purchase their permits before they arrive, or try to circumvent the system.
The Oregon Trail Interpretive Center offers different pricing schedules during their high service season (February 1st through November 30th) and their low service season. They also offer one free fee day per month, and a special rate for students. They made these decisions after extensive outreach to their mostly regional visitors. All of these measures were responses to concerns that lower income people were being excluded due to fees. Finally, to respond to a lull in northwestern tourism, they offer hotels in the area transferable tickets to give to guests as special perks. The Center has also joined forces with local, state and regional tourism bureaus to market the center to new tourists within and outside the region.
Other innovations include the Colorado River site's test of the public's willingness to pay for very underdeveloped sites (i.e., what is the minimal amount of development visitors are willing to accept and pay for?), the Deschutes River site's objective to use pricing to lower peak use on the river on the weekends (it worked), and the Yaquina Head (on the Oregon Coast) site's three-tiered pricing strategy. For example, the tier-one strategy is charging an entrance fee just at the visitor center and lighthouse. Tier two is charging per vehicle at the front gate, and tier three is charging per person. Right now the site is testing tier one. The site won't go to tier two or three unless management doesn't meet 90 percent of their funding needs for FY 1998 with appropriations and user fee receipts combined.
The Paria Canyon, Snake River and Oregon Interpretive Center sites blamed low visitor days on the floods and bad weather patterns of El Nino. Paria Canyon collected $20,000 instead of the projected $38,000 due to washed out and flooded roads leading to the site, and the Snake River site had to shorten their season to only two summer months, reducing expected collections from $28,000 to $14,000. The Mescalero Sands site is expecting to collect $4500 for the year, and has collected $300 in the first two months of operation. The Colorado River site expects to collect $27,000 for the year, and has grossed $2800 in the first two months of their operation. The Yaquina Head site finished last quarter of the fiscal year with $27,000 in gross receipts. This fell far short of the expected $320,000 because visitor numbers declined after they began charging fees. However, by changing the fee collection site and system slightly, they now feel they can average $6,000 per month.
The Red Rocks Canyon site has been collecting entrance fees on its scenic drive since the middle of November, 1997. In the last two weeks of the month, the site grossed $68,000, way over their expectation of $25,000 to $30,000. Most of this was the purchase of annual passes, which boosted the results. The Deschutes River site collected $160,000 their first season, meeting their expectations. The Oregon Trail Interpretive Center expected to collect between $75,000 and $150,000 in the first three months, and ended up with $120,000. However, this has replaced the nearly $50,000 they used to collect from a donation box.
The projects did not increase funding for the national, state, or district offices. This is because 100 percent of the receipts are kept at the site. The Anasazi site increased local funding by 6 percent. The Mescalero Sands site had no funding for recreation before the project, and staff feel the project has worked as a marketing device to advertise the site to visitors. This exposure helped gain the site a $37,000 grant from ISTEA. A matching $37,000 was given to the site by an oil pipeline company, the New Mexico Off-Road Vehicle Association, and a local Off-Road Vehicle group. The Anasazi Center used $10,000 of their fee collections as a cash match for a grant proposal for $90,000 from the Colorado Historical Society. The Deschutes River site increased their $444,000 budget by $160,000, a 36-percent increase, and the Red Rocks Canyon site increased their funding by a third, which was reduced to 15 percent after reimbursing the interpretive association nearly $200,000 for the year.
The USDA Forest Service has received far more complaints from the public for their Fee Demonstration Project, including one bomb threat in Arizona. For example, one mountain climber complained that the Shasta-Trinity National Forest was charging climbers high fees to reduce crowding and then using those fees to build and maintain campgrounds. This is exactly the type of cross-subsidization predicted when managers are allowed to keep their gross receipts plus appropriations, as opposed to being funded out of their net receipts.
This type of cross-subsidization is not yet obvious in the BLM program. Perhaps it is too early, or maybe the agency has been targeting specific markets for each site.
Part of this has to do with a lack of communication from the Washington office to the states and districts. For example, a memo distributed to the states erroneously excluded sites that were already collecting fees from participating in the project. Some managers even assert that Congress's original intent with the project was to give the National Park Service permission to raise fees, and that the other three agencies simply got carried along.
Perhaps fear of having prior appropriations be replaced by collections, which was an idea being tossed around Congress, acted as a disincentive; legislation about the number of new entries kept changing. Finally, the agency never had a national meeting or kick-off to gather enthusiasm over the project.
Money collected from the first year of the BLM's Fee Demonstration Project has been spent on publicly visible projects. Examples include exhibits, special events, law enforcement, toilets, roads, campsites, brochures, education and interpretive programs, employee housing, trail improvement, picnic areas, and public outreach. There is no indication that funds have been spent on extravagant items. Rather, most managers are scrambling to buy the necessary tools to implement the project (like brochures and collection booths), attend to backlogged maintenance projects, and market their sites.
The projects are not self-funding. In fact, Congress never intended that pilots should rely solely on receipts. But allowing BLM managers to keep 100 percent of gross receipts plus appropriations has given them incentives to provide the paying public with what they need in terms of recreation, without worrying about decreasing budgets.
User fees for recreation, in the long run, may shift incentives away from selling environmentally and fiscally damaging timber, mineral and grazing leases, and toward recreation. However, this will only happen when managers who oversee both programs within a district are able to make decisions based on fair market valuation of resources and real costs.