The Growth of "Amenity Fees" In the Parks
Thirty-five dollars for a ranger-led tour, four-hour minimum, in Big Bend National Park in Texas.
Three dollars for a living history tour at Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site in Colorado.
Ten dollars for an historic tour at Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Oklahoma.
Three-hundred dollars for a ranger-guided tour, up to eight hours, at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia.
Ten dollars for a sled dog demonstration at Denali National Park and Preserve.
Thirty-five dollars for a self-guided tour at Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts.
Twelve dollars for a tour of the gun room at Springfield Armory National Historic Site.
Most of the media attention of late regarding national parks has centered on entrance fees. All but overlooked are "amenity fees," a euphemism for "user fees," that are spreading like kudzu across the national park system as parks struggle to pay for upkeep, maintenance, and even salaries.
Truth be told, park superintendents across the system were asked to "exercise a lot of creativity" in terms of fees to help pay for their operations, one superintendent told me.
Last year such fees associated with park interpretation by the National Park Service brought in $4.4 million, and all but about $276,000 was pumped back into the system to help pay for programs.
While the spate of fees might be approaching epidemic levels, Park Service officials point out that they're authorized to collect them under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA).
"The NPS tracks all its revenue in our official finance system and fees collected must be in compliance with the fee authorities (laws) that they were authorized by," Jane Moore, the fee program manager in the Park Service's Washington, D.C., office, told me. "Each superintendent is ultimately accountable for assuring adherence to requirements of the various fee authorities (usually delineates how the money can be used) and NPS policies.
"Our office can run reports on all the revenue and expenditures associated with fees collected under FLREA."
FLREA proponents hail the legislation as a way for parks (and national forests) to recoup costs from the visiting public. Critics portray it as a "Recreation Access Tax," or RAT tax and note that the legislative provision that gave FLREA life was attached to an omnibus spending bill in the relative dark of night, never specifically voted on by either the U.S. House or U.S. Senate.
Outwardly, there seems to be neither rhyme nor reason behind the setting of these amenity fees. Why does it cost $18 to walk through the FDR home and only $11 to tour Scotty's Castle in Death Valley? Why does an America the Beautiful Pass, which gains you access to all national park units, all national forest fee areas, and all U.S. Bureau of Land Management fee areas, cost $80, and yet if you want an annual boat permit at Isle Royale National Park it costs $150?
In truth, though, there is a system for determining appropriate fees, Ms. Moore told me.
"Parks must complete a comparability study each year comparing their rates with other similar type activities in their locality," she says. "Rates are then vetted locally through civic engagement and then submitted annually through their regional office and then through the national office.The rates are reviewed and approved on an annual basis.
"We have used comparability for many years as the best way for setting and adjusting amenity rates to ensure that rates are set fairly. We have had rates come down as well as go up. It depends on the local economy and the comparable," explained Ms. Moore. "Also, rates will not be standardized across the NPS because locality plays a big role. Some of our more expensive rates are in urban areas where costs are generally higher."
Of course, one could argue that urban areas have a higher percentage of low-income families that could least afford to pay $18 per person to tour FDR's home, while the folks who make the long, expensive trek to Death Valley could easily afford to pay a bit more to tour Scotty's Castle. (Having been to Scotty's Castle, a wondrous mansion, I wonder what they compared it to, as there's nothing like it in the region unless you drive about 100 miles to Las Vegas.)
With insufficient federal dollars to fuel the Park Service, is it any surprise the agency and its managers are being forced to get creative with FLREA?
At Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, a sprawling preserve that makes it impractical to collect entrance fees, Superintendent Russ Smith received permission to charge $2 for adults ($1 for seniors) to watch the park's 20-minute visitor center film. At Mesa Verde National Park, it costs $3 per adult to tour Balcony House, Long House or Cliff Palace.
At Natchez National Historical Park, the House Tour costs you $8. At Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, regularly scheduled interpretive programs run $3 per person or $8 per family.
When you consider park budgets, you can sympathize with the superintendents for eying amenity fees.
Superintendent Smith at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park has a $3.7 million annual budget. His staff is authorized at 48 positions, but his budget only pays for 44. Ninety-six percent of his budget is eaten up by non-discretionary items, things like staff salaries and utilities. "We only have 4 percent to work with for supplies and materials and anything else we need," Superintendent Smith says.
Oh, and that eight-hour, $300 ranger-led tour of the battlefields? That price normally is charged large groups, such as bus tours, and it goes to fund seasonal employees who can cover for the rangers giving the extended tours.
"That's a luxury that we can't afford to provide anymore unless we have a fee," Superintendent Smith told me of the half-day and day-long tours. "Otherwise we can't afford to have somebody at the visitor center desk."
Don't want to pony up such a fee for a day in the park? Not a problem. There are enough free, 45-minute-long programs offered daily throughout the summer that you easily could put together a four-hour program of your own, according to the superintendent.
In light of the funding woes, and the direction from Washington, it shouldn't be surprising that more and more amenity fees are popping up. But part of the problem with them -- beyond the philosophical question, which I'll get to in a moment -- is that the revenues can't be, or aren't supposedly to be, spent directly on full-time park staff. So, in theory, you could use fees to build a visitor center, but not use the revenues to staff that center, unless you relied on volunteers or seasonals.
"Visitor surveys at parks show a clear visitor preference for access to uniformed staff as being an important and desired part of their park experience," one ranger told me. "In spite of this, park requests to use visitor fees to provide improved levels of services are routinely denied. Senior NPS officials have established internal policies that essentially forbid using visitor fees for park operations in spite of the clear language and intent of the (FLREA) law.
"This has frustrated many park superintendents and program managers who feel visitors are being mislead with promises for improved services at the very time the agency seems bent on squeezing ever-higher amounts of money from the public."
Another problem is how the program is administered through the Park Service's cumbersome Project Management Information System, or PMIS. This system begins at the park level and runs up through the regional offices to headquarters in Washington. Along the way park proposals for spending fee revenues are vetted, rated, and prioritized.
With more than 130,000 project requests flowing through PMIS at any one time, coupled with the various stages of review, it's not unheard of for one project to be held in limbo for as many as five years before being funded.
And then there's the philosophical question: Should national parks, which officially were placed in the public trust in 1916 with passage of the National Park Service Organic Act, charge the public to enter and enjoy their beauty and wonders? After all, the original language of the act specified that no natural curiosities, wonders, or objects of interest shall be leased, rented, or granted to anyone on such terms as to interfere with free access to them by the public.
Of course, back in 1916 there were only a handful of parks and Congress no doubt didn't consider today's cumulative costs of operating and maintaining the park system. Salaries and benefits, utility costs and higher energy prices affect everyone; the NPS is not exempt.
And so while it might be understandable and even reasonable to charge a minimal fee to help defray the costs of operating Scotty's Castle or running the Tobyhanna Valley Steam Train down the rails at Steamtown National Historic Site, should we have to pay to watch a 20-minute film, attend a living history program at Bent's Old Fort, take a self-guided tour at Lowell National Historical Park, or even for a four-hour or full-day tour at Fredericksburg?
At the National Parks Conservation Association, Craig Obey tells me his organization is concerned about the growth of fees across the park system.
"What we want to be sure of is that fees aren't raised simply because there isn't adequate federal support," says Mr. Obey, NPCA's vice president for government affairs. "That's what it's so important to be funding the operations of the parks, so the federal government is dealing with its core responsibility.
"... To me, the staffing of the parks is a core responsibility of the federal government That’s why we’re pushing so hard to get additional positions funded for the Park Service," Mr. Obey added. "And I think there was a start this year with the (3,000) seasonal rangers for next season. But it’s just a start. It’s got to be a sustained effort and more to come in the future. What we want to see is the federal government meeting its responsibility.”
True, the president's fiscal 2008 budget proposal also calls for another 1,500 full-time rangers across the system, but it will take more than that to improve on years of relatively flat funding.
At Fredericksburg, Superintendent Smith doesn't like charging visitors $2 to view the visitor center films. But for now he has no other option.
"I think that, ideally, the core visitor experience, the experience that every visitor to the park should have in order to obtain a basic understanding of the resources, should be free," he told me.