San Diego Union Tribune

May 7, 2004

Regula wants park fees to become permanent

Copley Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON — Following up on a pet project, Rep. Ralph Regula on Thursday argued that Congress should make permanent the temporary user fees he pioneered eight years ago to help national parks address a maintenance backlog.

Making the fees permanent “will enable (park) superintendents to do planning. It will enable them to ensure they can deal with maintenance problems,” Regula, R-Bethlehem Township, told a House Resources subcommittee.

Opponents, who testified after Regula, countered that the more than $1 billion in revenue raised by the fees so far has been misspent.

They added that the fees pose a hardship for some people, are difficult to enforce and create an incentive to make costly and unnecessary improvements.

The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, a bill introduced by Regula, would give the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the permanent authority to charge user fees at federal lands used for recreation.

When he became chairman of the House Appropriations Interior Subcommittee in 1995, Regula discovered that needed maintenance projects were being left undone for lack of funds. Parks, national forests and other federal lands draw the vast bulk of their funding from tax dollars.

Regula created the fee program in 1996 as a temporary demonstration project to provide additional money for maintenance and improvements. Since then, Congress has periodically renewed the authority to collect the fees.

Under the program, 80 percent of fee revenue must remain in the park or recreational area where it was generated. Superintendents of parks and other federal lands have wide discretion in determining how to spend the money.

Some parks have adopted fees, while others have not.

In Ohio, for instance, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and James A. Garfield National Historic Site do not charge entrance fees. The First Ladies’ National Historic Site in Canton charges $7 for tours, while Perry’s Victory & International Peace Memorial in Lake Erie charges a $3 entrance fee.

“Frankly, the pressure is going to grow and grow on the parks,” Regula said. “This program offers a way to ensure the system can keep current in their maintenance.”

The park service and forest service support Regula’s legislation.

Among the opponents is Robert Funkhouser, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition. Funkhouser accepts user fees for national parks and supports a bill sponsored by Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., which would make just the park fees permanent. He opposes them for other public lands, he told the panel.

Under the program, “fees have been allowed to spread to hundreds of undeveloped and minimally developed areas,” he said in a statement given to the subcommittee. “Americans are now being charged fees for such basic services as picnic tables, road and trails, and for access to vast tracts of undeveloped public land.”

Funkhouser argued the fee revenue creates a perverse incentive to build unneeded visitor centers and toilets, which must be maintained, increasing long-term costs.

“It becomes a vicious circle,” he said. “The more the government develops its public lands, the more maintenance is required, the more fees are imposed, the fewer number of people who can enjoy these special places.”

In the past, the nonpartisan General Accounting Office has criticized the park service and forest service for presiding over an inconsistent and confusing patchwork of fees and failing to quantify the positive difference made by the additional revenues.

Neither the park service nor forest service has “accurate and reliable information on their deferred maintenance needs and, as a result, they cannot determine how much of the fee demonstration revenues is being spent on deferred maintenance or the fee program’s overall impact on reducing their deferred maintenance needs,” a GAO report released Thursday said.

By making the fees permanent, Regula’s bill would provide an incentive to develop a better system for tracking progress on the maintenance backlog, the GAO said.

The Regula bill also would promote standardization and coordination of user fees, reducing confusion, according to the GAO.

In an unexpected benefit, the fees have reduced vandalism at some parks, Regula has heard from park superintendents.

He recalled visiting Angeles National Forest in California and seeing a picnic area that vandals had destroyed.

If those responsible for the damage “had to stop and pay a couple of bucks (for admission), they would be very reluctant” to wreak havoc, Regula said. He believes the culprits would have feared that after they paid a fee, there would be “a possible way of identifying them as being in the facility.”

Supporters of Regula’s bill were unsure if it could win House approval, or even whether the House Resources Committee would send it to the House floor this year.

Rep. Richard W. Pombo, R-Calif., who chairs the Resources Committee, has not decided if he supports Regula’s legislation, an aide said.