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The Effect of Access Fees on Visitation to Public Lands in Whatcom County, Washington

The Effect of Access Fees on Visitation to Public Lands in Whatcom County, Washington

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Published by Sonya Rodgers
Michael Kirshenbaum's master thesis examines how charging for access is affecting the public mission of
parks and other outdoor recreation areas. Throughout American history most parks,
forests and other protected natural areas have been government owned and open to full
access by people. In the United States, therefore, parks and other outdoor areas have long
been treated as public, or so-called “merit goods.”

Over the past decade, however, the public nature of parks and other public lands
in the United States has been challenged. Governments have adopted free market
practices for the management of public lands. The most prominent of the market-based
practices is replacing park funding from general tax revenue with money raised through
access fees. Requiring the payment of a fee to access public lands is a potential indicator
of a societal shift in the treatment of public lands from merit goods to private goods.
Concerns have also been raised by citizens, land managers, and politicians that requiring
payment of a fee for access may dissuade or exclude some people from entering parks
because of an inability- or difficulty-to-pay.
Michael Kirshenbaum's master thesis examines how charging for access is affecting the public mission of
parks and other outdoor recreation areas. Throughout American history most parks,
forests and other protected natural areas have been government owned and open to full
access by people. In the United States, therefore, parks and other outdoor areas have long
been treated as public, or so-called “merit goods.”

Over the past decade, however, the public nature of parks and other public lands
in the United States has been challenged. Governments have adopted free market
practices for the management of public lands. The most prominent of the market-based
practices is replacing park funding from general tax revenue with money raised through
access fees. Requiring the payment of a fee to access public lands is a potential indicator
of a societal shift in the treatment of public lands from merit goods to private goods.
Concerns have also been raised by citizens, land managers, and politicians that requiring
payment of a fee for access may dissuade or exclude some people from entering parks
because of an inability- or difficulty-to-pay.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Sonya Rodgers on Apr 01, 2011
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04/01/2011

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The findings presented here regarding public land access fees must be viewed

within the broader context of the creeping privatization of public lands. As discussed

earlier, public land agencies have adopted numerous market-based management practices

in recent years, including outsourcing of functions such as maintenance and

interpretation; promoting private sponsorship of projects; selling off holdings that do not

generate revenue; and shifting the entire budget of public land agencies from general tax

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revenue to user fees. Although public ownership of parks and most outdoor recreational

areas remains the norm – indeed there has not been a wide sell-off of public lands – there

is clearly an erosion of the merit-goods nature of public lands.

These market-based changes, including access fees, are often promoted or

rationalized as a way to help public lands improve their bottom line and enhance service

to the public (Johnson 1991; Hanson 2005). Charging access fees, however, does not

appear to always generate new revenue to help land management agencies. There are

several reasons why the new fee money is not improving the fiscal bottom line for public

land agencies. First, it appears that, in some cases, fee revenue has replaced previously

appropriated dollars rather than create new resources. It is difficult to generalize this

conclusion to all fee programs throughout the country, but there are some important

findings that reinforce it. Congress slashed the U.S. Forest Service’s recreation budget

by more than a third between 1996 and 1999, for example, at the same time that the Fee

Demo program started (Michlen 2001). Similarly, the Deschutes National Forest in

Oregon generated $175,400 in user fees in 1998 and then had its budget for 1999 cut by

$175,800 (Michlen 2001). The most striking evidence of fee dollars replacing

appropriated dollars is found with state parks. In Kansas, the state legislature has moved

from fully supporting state parks to currently only paying for 20 percent of the park

agency’s operating budget with increased fees making up the shortfall (Sigman 2005).

Currently, Washington State Parks needs to raise 40 percent of its budget from fees,

whereas just a few years ago it received virtually all of its funding from the state’s

general fund (WSP 2005).

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Finally, access fees do not always generate the predicted amount of revenue.

Agencies appear to have spent significant sums implementing the program, cutting into

the net financial gain from charging fees. A comprehensive 2003 General Accounting

Office (GAO) report of the U.S. Forest Service’s implementation of the Fee Demo

program, for example, shows that the agency had spent almost as much money on

enforcing and promoting access fees as they generated from the fees themselves (GAO

2003). Fees may also affect visitation levels, as seen in Washington State, where visits to

state parks have dropped since fees were implemented in 2002. As a result, projected

revenue generated by the fee program has been much less than expected (Freiderich

2005).

Thus, it appears that the greatest impact of fees has not been to dramatically

improve the financial standing of public lands, but rather to shift how society pays for

public lands. We are moving from paying for public lands via broad, progressive

taxation to user fees that exclude or deter significant segments of society. In some cases,

this shift has been incremental, such as with some state park systems and most federal

lands, which still receive significant general funding from Congress. But in other cases

the shift has been total, such as with Michigan State Parks, which now receives all of its

funding from user fees and where land managers must find ways to promote visitation or,

in essence, sell their product, in order to fund their budget (Wureful 2003; Stang 2005).

This new reality was clearly stated by Mike Hayden, the head of the Kansas Department

of Wildlife and Parks, when talking about the role that fees have played in that state’s

park system: "Every time we raise fees we cut some people out (Sigman 2005).”

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A fair debate can be had between ideological opponents about the ethics and

efficacy of government services being privatized and government agencies adopting

business-like practices. Indeed, the evidence is somewhat inconclusive that fees do not

generate new, much needed revenue (GAO 1998; GAO 2003). What is undeniable,

however, is that access fees cause public lands to be treated more like private goods – a

fundamental change in the history of public land management. If proponents of user fees

suggest that there is much to be gained by this change in terms of market-based

efficiencies, greater responsiveness to “customer” needs, and perhaps even more funding

for land-management agencies, then it is equally important to determine what might be

lost by this shift. The research in this thesis clearly shows that what is at jeopardy is

something fundamental to parks and other outdoor areas: their public nature. At many

parks and other outdoor areas, the many benefits of public lands, so forcefully espoused

by Olmsted and others, are no longer available to all citizens, but rather only to those who

can pay entry fees.

Although some may argue that it seems difficult to believe that a $5 entry fee

would prevent someone from visiting a public land (Grewell 2004), this research clearly

shows that fees have a deterrent effect. The harsh economic reality facing some people

when they consider paying a fee was stated by one survey respondent: “Do I pay $5 for a

park or $5 towards the bill for my teeth?” When the nation’s relatively new public land

policy of charging fees forces such a tradeoff, then it is undeniable that public lands are

no longer as public, or democratic, as they once were.

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