National Park Service
Visitor Fees in the National Park System
A Legislative and Administrative History
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The Seasonal Fee Rates Experiment

At Yosemite, one of the most heavily visited units of the National Park System, the campgrounds are chronically crowded with waiting lines during the peak summer season. For a brief time in the mid-1970s, the park reduced the fee at certain campgrounds from $4 to $2 during the months of November through March, the object being to shift some of the summer use to the off-season.

No such shift occurred, suggesting that few if any of the summer campers were so hard-pressed by the $4 fee as to find the winter discount an incentive to change their vacation plans. Because per capita operating costs were higher in the winter, the reduced seasonal rate was discontinued. The experiment was not repeated elsewhere. [1]

The Public Willingness to Pay Study, 1976

In 1976 the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (BOR) commissioned Economic Research Associates to conduct a study of the public's willingness to pay user charges for recreation facilities. "Increased emphasis has...been placed by the Office of Management and Budget on developing more definitive economic criteria for allocation of resources, as well as encouraging greater self-sufficiency of recreation areas and facilities/services through the application of user fees," the study report noted in justifying its purpose.

The contracted firm surveyed 800 households representing varying ages, incomes, educational levels, and geographic areas. Its report revealed that a majority of all demographic groups favored the user fee concept as opposed to total reliance on general tax revenues, and that most people were willing to pay higher fees than were then in effect. Interestingly, opposition to user fees on the grounds that they deterred lower-income participation came more from higher income and education levels; those of lower income and education, who did patronize recreation facilities less, expressed the greatest support for fees. BOR distributed the report to Federal, state, and local recreation-providing agencies to encourage them to place greater reliance on user fees as a way out of their current funding difficulties. [2]

The NPS Recreation Fee Study, 1977

Under pressure from the Department and the Office of Management and Budget, the National Park Service undertook another study of its visitor fee system in 1976-77. A copy of the resulting report, prepared by the Policy Division of the Office of Programming and Budget and dated June 1977, is appended to this history.

The report contained some valuable statistics on the contemporary status and sources of fee revenue in the Park System. In 1976, entrance and/or user fees had been levied at 116 units of the System (less than half the total) and had yielded $16.9 million: $9 million (53%) from entrance fees, $6.4 million (38%) from user fees, and $1.6 million (9%) from Golden Eagle Passport sales. Of the 66 parks charging entrance fees, 10 collected two-thirds of the revenue, $6 million, at a cost of $1.2 million; the other 56 collected the remaining one-third, $3 million, at a cost of $1 million. Of the 77 areas charging user fees (mostly for camping), 10 collected $3.8 million at a cost of $1.2 million and the rest took in $2.6 million at a cost of $1.1 million.

It was evident from these figures both that entrance fees were more profitable than user fees (more money raised at fewer parks for about the same cost) and that a few areas--for the most part the large western parks--brought in a vastly disproportionate share of revenues in both categories. The latter factor made Service management reluctant to adopt an incentive system, proposed by the Department, whereby park superintendents collecting more fees would receive more in return. As the study report noted, fee receipts were not necessarily within a park's control, an incentive system might cause superintendents to overly stress collection, and the parks that received the most revenue--usually without having to overexert themselves--were not always those most in need of more money. [3]

The Service put off the Department's proposal by promising that it would establish rational criteria for entrance fee collection throughout the System that would increase total revenues. In November 1977 Assistant Director Robert G. Stanton and George A. Gowans, chief of the Policy Division, wrote Deputy Director Ira J. Hutchison to urge prompt action:

It is necessary that some action on this issue be taken immediately. We are committed to both the Department and OMB to implement during the coming year an equitable fee rate structure for parks which now charge entrance fees. Again informally, the Department has indicated that if we cannot develop such a system, it is considering requiring a system which would supply monetary incentives to park managers to collect fees. This would mean that most of the $15 million in the recreation fee account would be returned to large western parks, severely limiting the discretion that you and the Director have in using this fund. [4]

The Proposed Fee Increase, 1978-1979

The heightened attention to fee revenues stemming from such prodding resulted in a servicewide entrance fee standard and revenue increase plan the following June. The standard, contained in a memorandum from Director William J. Whalen to the Washington and field directorate, specified that entrance fees would be charged where entrance could be controlled, a Federal investment had been made in facilities or programs, fee collection was cost-effective, and entrance fees were not prohibited by law or other binding obligation. Entrance fees at urban recreation areas were explicitly ruled out. Fees for single visit permits would range from $3 per vehicle at Group I areas to $1 per vehicle at Group III areas; the areas were grouped based on the size of their operating budgets. Persons entering by other than private vehicle would pay a uniform 50¢ each. The new schedule was to take effect October 1, 1978. [5]

Following issuance of the Whalen memorandum, the Office of Management and Budget (0MB) reduced the Service's fiscal 1980 budget request for operation of the National Park System by $12 million and advised the Service to make up the loss through fees. This led to a further increase in the projected rates to a $4 maximum (at Yosemite $4.50 because of a 50 cent surcharge for that park's visitor transportation system). Entrance fees would be raised at 14 areas already levying such charges and initiated at 9 parks; in addition, campground fees would increase in 52 areas. The additional revenues were to be applied to park maintenance. [6]

Sharply adverse reaction from Representative Phillip Burton, chairman of the House Interior Committee's subcommittee on parks, delayed implementation of the new rates and gave the corresponding Senate subcommittee, chaired by Senator Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, opportunity to hold a hearing on the proposed fee increase on March 5, 1979. Bumpers opened by expressing concern about the size of the increase (yielding revenues more than 70 percent over the 1978 level) and the linking of fees to park maintenance. He disagreed that visitors should be responsible for meeting the burden of higher maintenance costs and wondered how maintenance needs would be funded if fee income proved inadequate.

Director Whalen made clear that the proposal had been forced by OMB, and although he claimed to support it, the tone of his testimony revealed his lack of commitment. He derided the theory that people take better care of parks when they have to pay and noted that visitation had increased at a park he had headed when the entrance fee was dropped--"So there is another side to this, that I think it is only fair this committee be aware of." In defense of the proposal, he did note that many park fees had remained constant for years and that those buying the $10 Golden Eagle Passport would pay no more for entry. But the committee was plainly unconvinced. [7]

A New York Times article on the fee increase proposal after the hearing contained further evidence of where Service leadership stood on the matter: "The White House Office of Management and Budget pushed the rises over objections by the park service, an agency source said, requesting that his name to be withheld" (sic). [8]

Whalen's testimony and the Times article occasioned a stinging letter from OMB Director James T. McIntyre, Jr., to Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus:

Two recent events involving members of your staff have indicated an unsatisfactory level of support for the increase in park fee collections proposed for 1979-1980....

The increase in park fee collections is contained in the President's Budget for FY 1980. You personally agreed to this increase after the amount....was reduced from a higher proposed figure. I expect all members of the Administration to support the proposals contained in the President's Budget, and statements such as that referred to in the article are counterproductive in this regard. I believe Director Whalen missed numerous opportunities during the course of the testimony to advance the arguments in favor of increased fee collections. I hope that you will emphasize once more to your staff that the President's Budget should be defended with the best arguments available.

The case for increased park fee collections is a strong one:

Increased park fee collections will shift a bit of the burden of financing park operations from the general taxpayer to park users. This is consistent with the general emphasis in this budget on efficient, cost-effective management.

The average park visitor can afford to pay higher fees. (Sixty-three percent of park visitors have family incomes exceeding $15,000 per year versus 36 percent of all Americans.)

Park entrance fees haven't been increased since 1972. (It now costs about the same for a family of four to enter Yellowstone Park as to buy them all ice cream cones.)

Surveys indicate park users are willing to pay higher fees, and that they would prefer increased costs of operating parks to be financed by higher fees rather than by increased taxes.

National parks do poorly in collecting fees compared to States, counties and cities. Federal parks only finance five percent of operating costs through fees, city parks finance 12 percent, counties do 20 percent, and States do 25 percent.

Higher fees will not be imposed in urban areas, which are the areas most likely to be used by the poor.

I trust your staff will emphasize these points in the future. [9]

Freezing the Entrance Fees, 1979-1980

In March 1977 Representative Goodloe Byron of Maryland introduced another amendment to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act. Among its provisions was one freezing National Park System entrance fees at their January 1, 1977, levels and prohibiting new entrance, increases in existing fees, or extensions of fee collection seasons "except by Act of Congress." [10]

Byron's bill was not acted upon in the 95th Congress, but legislation with a similar provision was introduced in the 96th Congress by Representative Phillip Buxton and others and passed the House on May 7, 1979. "While my fundamental position is that these Federal areas should be open to all citizens without costs," said Burton on the House floor before passage, "we have chosen, at this time, to simply restrict the administration from increasing fees in these areas or extending fees to areas which are now free." [11]

A week later the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (replacing the Interior Committee) approved another bill to which was attached a matching fee freeze amendment. "The committee adopted this amendment in response to an Administration proposal to increase entrance and user fees at National Park System units in fiscal year 1980 by some 74 percent over fiscal year 1979 levels," its report stated. The report went on to criticize the Service's justification of the proposal at the subcommittee hearing:

At that hearing, Director Whalen indicated that this proposed increase was based solely on the decision to raise additional revenues rather than any economic analysis or careful study relative to the effect of these proposed increases on the park visitor. Equally disturbing is the fact that these additional revenues...would be used for park maintenance and rehabilitation projects. The normal Park Service maintenance account would be reduced by the amount of increase fees [sic] collected.... The language adopted by the committee....will permit a more careful examination of this "link" between maintenance costs and park fees. [12]

Assistant Secretary of the Interior Robert L. Herbst countered with a letter to Walter F. Mondale,, President of the Senate, pleading against passage of the Senate bill. The letter presented the arguments cited in the OMB reprimand and conveyed that office's warning "that unless S. 495 is amended to delete the entrance and transportation fee provisions, S. 495 would not be in accord with the programs of the President." [13] The Senate was not deterred, passing the bill on June 7.

Whalen attempted to redeem himself with the administration the following month. Appearing before Senator Bumpers' subcommittee on another matter, he raised the subject of the freeze and urged that it at least be made temporary:

Give us some time to work with your committee and others in Congress on how best to address the entrance fee issue. I would suggest that the conference report indicate your willingness to amend the freeze perhaps as early as January 1, 1980. By that time, I would hope that some agreement could be reached on the issue. [14]

But the appeal was to no avail. With no indication of temporary intent, the freeze provisions adopted by the two houses were incorporated in a veto-resistant omnibus park bill, which was in turn passed by the Congress and signed by President Jimmy Carter on October 12, 1979. Section 402 of the resulting Public Law 96-87 read,

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Secretary shall not charge any entrance or admission fee in excess of the amounts which were in effect as of January 1, 1979, or charge said fees at any unit of the National Park System where such fees were not in effect as of such date, nor shall the Secretary charge after the date of enactment of this section, user fees for transportation services and facilities in Mount McKinley National Park, Alaska. [15]

Representative Buxton was not long content with this simple freeze of the status quo. In the second session of the same Congress, he shepherded another bill through the House providing that "no Federal fee shall be imposed for entrance or admission to any national recreation area, any unit of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, or any unit of the National Trails System." Additionally, no entrance fee could be collected after June 1, 1981, at any NPS area where receipts exceeded collection costs by less than $2,000 in 1979, unless the Secretary of the Interior determined that fee collection was necessary to protect an affected park's resources and so notified the responsible congressional committees in advance. The latter provision, Buxton said on the House floor, was directed to areas "where profits are so marginal that their continuation appears to be an exercise in bureaucratic inertia rather than a thoughtful program. Of particular concern to me is the imposition of such fees of national historic sites, where we should be offering every encouragement to our citizens to learn something of their heritage." He took a tough stand on the escape clause: "I want to serve notice to the Interior Department that this Member, for one, will not find an indiscriminate use of this exemption to be in any way acceptable." The House passed the bill on September 22, 1980, but time was running out for the 96th Congress and the Senate took no action. [16]

Led again by Representative Burton, the entrance fee opposition was simultaneously at work on another front. Following the 1938 Mount Rushmore precedent, two bills were enacted in 1978 prohibiting such fees at particular parks: Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Virgin Islands National Park, War in the Pacific National Historical Park, and American Memorial Park (an affiliated area on Saipan). During the 96th Congress park-specific prohibitions were extended to the 16 new and existing areas in Alaska, Biscayne National Park, Boston African American National Historic Site (an affiliated area), Channel Islands National Park, Fort Jefferson National Monument, Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, and Point Reyes National Seashore. [17] The blanket proscription of new entrance fees in Public Law 96-87 left only those areas charging at the beginning of 1979-about 20 percent of the System's total--able to do so in the future.

Visitor Transportation System Fees

To relieve automobile congestion and facilitate visitor circulation, the Service employed buses or other visitor transportation systems at certain heavily used parks in the mid-1970s. In January 1977 the Office of Management and Budget requested that the Service charge fees for at least three visitor transportation systems during fiscal year 1978 to assess their possible self-sufficiency.

During the summer of 1977 the Service collected visitor use data on all visitor transportation system (VTS) operations. The resulting report identified two types of VTS. Type I systems were those central to park operations and used by nearly all visitors, such as the Yosemite Valley shuttle. These, it was determined, should be covered by park entrance fees rather than be made subject to separate user charges. Type II systems were used by small portions of visitors for special tours. User fees could appropriately be levied for these, although not necessarily with the goal of recovering all costs. The report concluded that few systems could pay for themselves; substantial fees would cause the public to return to their cars. [18]

As the VTS fee experiment got underway in 1978, enactment of Public Law 95-344 on August 15 of that year supplied legal authority for NPS visitor transportation systems and provided that "All fees directly collected by the National Park Service in the operation of the facilities and services authorized...shall be covered into the Planning, Development, and Operation of Recreation Facilities appropriation account to be subject to appropriation." [19]

For fiscal 1980, OMB directed the Service to levy VTS charges at six more parks. Mount McKinley was among them, and the fee for the long bus trip there was set at $5 per person (less than half of per capita operating costs ). At his March 1979 subcommittee hearing, Senator Bumpers was especially critical of this rate. "That is one that I think is out of line," he said, observing that his family of seven would have to pay $35 to make the trip. [20] In retaliation, a provision banning any VTS fee at Mount McKinley was added to the pending entrance fee freeze legislation and was included in Public Law 96-87 of October 12, 1979.

In March 1980 the Service enunciated a general policy guiding VTS charges throughout the Park System:

Whenever feasible, a reasonable fee will be charged to cover a portion of VTS operating costs. The fee will be based in part upon the cost and in part upon the service provided and its relationship to other park facilities and services.

"Single Visits" and Handicapped Permits, 1976-1980

The ill-conceived Public Law 93-81 that killed the camping fees in 1973 also broadened the definition of a "single visit" so that entrance charges would not be levied each day a visitor remained in a park. But the law allowed a visitor to leave and return without repayment only on the first day, penalizing those who were camping or using other services outside park boundaries (page 50).

In 1976 a bill was introduced in the 94th Congress to remedy this situation by authorizing a new class of permit good for multiple visits during a 15-day period. (The "series of visits" permit authority in the original Land and Water Conservation Fund Act had been eliminated by the 1972 amendment to the act.) In commenting on the bill, the Interior Department recommended instead that a "single visit" be redefined to allow holders of the existing permit "a more or less continuous stay" for up to 15 days, depending on the nature of the area. [22] The bill passed the House unchanged but was not acted upon by the Senate before the Congress adjourned.

In the next Congress Representative B. F. Sisk of California introduced a new bill with the language recommended by Interior. Although it too failed of enactment, its content was incorporated in an omnibus bill passed by the 96th Congress and approved September 8, 1980. The relevant paragraph of Public Law 96-344 repealed the "single visit" definition added by Public Law 93-81 and reamended the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act to specify:

A "single visit" means a more or less continuous stay within a designated area. Payment of a single visit admission fee shall authorize exits from and reentries to a single designated area for a period of from one to fifteen days, such period to be defined for each designated area by the administering Secretary based upon a determination of the period of time reasonably and ordinarily necessary for such a single visit. [23]

Superintendents of entrance fee parks were subsequently asked to recommend for Washington Office approval the single visit time periods to apply at their areas.

Two bills in the 95th Congress (1977-78), Goodloe Byron's containing the entrance fee freeze and another introduced by B. F. Sisk, called for free park entrance permits for blind and disabled persons. [24] This provision, tightened to restrict such permits to those eligible for benefits under Federal law, was enacted during the following Congress as another component of Public Law 96-344. Like the Golden Age Passport, the permits entitled their holders to a 50 percent discount on user fees for special recreation facilities as well as free entry. The Golden Access Passport, as it was administratively designated, was issued beginning in 1981.

Losing Control of the Receipts, 1980

Beginning in 1972, visitor fee revenues no longer went into the Land and Water Conservation Fund but were covered into a special Treasury account to "be available for appropriation, without prejudice to appropriations from other sources for the same purposes, for any authorized outdoor recreation function of the agency by which the fees were collected...." [25] The $10.6 million collected by the Park Service in 1976 was used for visitor transportation system planning and operation, exhibit and audiovisual production by the Harpers Ferry Center, and fee collection cost reimbursement. [26]

The special account was envisioned as an incentive for fee collection by the several agencies. In practice, it would prove impossible for the Office of Management and Budget and the Congress to ignore the existence and level of fee receipts in recommending and making appropriations from other sources. Rather than treating fee income as a bonus, OMB came to see it as a means of offsetting the Service's budget requests and pressed for higher fees for just that purpose.

Displeased with this trend, the Interior subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee in 1980 recommended abolition of the separate fee accounts maintained for the Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Forest Service:

The intent was to encourage fee collection efforts with the reward of additional funding. In practice, however, these indefinite fee accounts have only created bookkeeping and paperwork burdens without actually increasing any agency's overall funding for recreation management and development. The funds are merged with regular appropriations and are even justified under some agencies' operating accounts.

The ensuing Interior Appropriations Act for fiscal 1981 required all entrance and user fee revenues to be deposited once again in the Land and Water Conservation Fund, thereby limiting their application to land acquisition and state planning and development grants. [27] The effect was to virtually eliminate whatever financial incentive remained for park managers to collect visitor fees: they were uncompensated for their costs and benefited little or not at all from the proceeds.

1Memorandum, Acting Director Daniel J. Tobin, Jr., to Director, Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, Feb. 24, 1978, NPS Ranger Activities and Protection Division, Washington, D.C. (hereinafter cited as WASO-535).

2"Evaluation of Public Willingness to Pay User Charges for Use of Outdoor Recreation Areas," Sept. 1, 1976 (copy in Interior Library).

3"Analysis of the National Park Service Recreation Fee System," June 1977. See appendix.

4Memorandum, Stanton and Gowans to Hutchison, Nov. 2, 1977, WASO-535.

5Memorandum, Whalen to Directorate, WASO and Field, June 13, 1978, WASO-535.

6U.S., Congress, Senate, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Entrance and User Fees Within the National Park System, Hearing, Mar. 5, 1979, pp. 3, 39.

7Ibid., pp. 1-3, 7, 38, 45.

8Rise in Admission Fees to U.S. Parks Planned," Mar. 12, 1979, clipping with letter, Director James T. McIntyre, Jr., OMB, to Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus, Apr. 3, 1979, Interior Solicitor's Office.

9Letter, McIntyre to Andrus.

10H.R. 5524, 95th Congress, Mar. 23, 1977.

11H.R. 3757, 96th Congress; Congressional Record, May 7, 1979, pp. H2749, H2752. (Representative in October 1978.)

12Senate Report 96-180, May 15, 1979, p. 7.

13Letter, Herbst to Mondale, June 6, 1979, NPS Office of Legislation, Washington, D.C.

14U.S., Congress, Senate, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Channel Islands National Park, Hearing on S. 1104 and H.R. 3757, July 19, 1979, p. 79.

1593 Stat. 666.

16H.R. 8087; Congressional Record, Sept. 22, 1980, pp. H9269-71. Fourteen of the 62 parks charging entrance fees in 1979 would have been prevented from doing so by the bill: Andrew Johnson NHS, Fort Pulaski NM, John F. Kennedy NHS, John Muir NHS, Longfellow NHS, Minute Man NHP, Tuzigoot NM, and Walnut Canyon NM took in under $2,000 more than collection costs; Natural Bridges NM, Saint-Gaudens NHS, Scotts Bluff NM, Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace NHS, Tonto NM, and Tumacacori NM did not meet collection costs.

1792 Stat. 487, 3467; 94 Stat. 67, 77, 600, 601, 1842, 1846, 2371.

18NPS Policy Group, "Analysis of Fees for Visitor Transportation Systems," February 1978 (copy in WASO-535).

1992 Stat. 478. The account named was that into which the other visitor fee receipts went.

20"Briefing Statement: Visitor Transportation System Fees in Mount McKinley National Park," Mar. 23, 1979, WASO-535; Entrance and User Fees Hearing, pp. 7, 53.

21Memorandum, Acting Director Daniel J. Tobin, Jr., to Director, Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, Mar. 28, 1980, WASO-535.

22H.R. 11061; letter, Assistant Secretary Ronald M. Coleman to Rep. James A. Haley, Aug. 10, 1976, WASO-535.

23H.R. 5802, 95th Congress; S. 2680, 96th Congress; 94 Stat. 1135.

24H.R. 5524, H.R. 5801.

25P.L. 90-401, July 15, 1968, 82 Stat. 354; P.L. 92-347, July 11, 1972, 86 Stat. 459. (The quoted language was included in both acts but did not become effective until 1972.)

26"Analysis of the National Park Service Recreation Fee System."

27Senate Report 96-985, Sept. 23, 1980, p. 9; P.L. 96-514, Dec. 12, 1980, 94 Stat. 2960.

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Last Updated: 05-Apr-2000