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An Argument Against Recreational User Fees on Federal Land

 An Argument Against Recreational User Fees on Federal Land

by Dan Russell

April 23, 2002

Photos by Sean Hudson

Introduction to the Introduction

This piece concerns the issue of the Recreational User Fee Demonstration Program, a Congressional program designed to use federal lands to generate revenue, capitalizing on the increase in American recreation. Examples include: entrance fees to enter National and State Parks, backcountry fees to go hiking, and impact fees to go backcountry camping. Most of this money does not go toward existing infrastructure maintenance, whose cost is already provided for through the federal budget. Instead, this money covers needless spending by the National Park Service - money wasted in the commercialization of our wilderness. In October of 2001, Congress voted to extend the program for an additional two years, through 2004. The original extension was set at four years, and many groups (including the Access Fund) were instrumental in limiting the extension. Discriminatory against low-income constituents (who have already paid to use the land with taxes) and contrary to the philosophy of preservation, the Recreational User Fee Demonstration Program needs to be ended. For information on how to take part in providing a voice against this program, email


Many people disagree with the way our wild areas are currently being regulated. Everything from user fees to public transportation is debated. There are two main sides to the issue. One side says that these beautiful areas are preserved for the public, and all efforts should be made to extend their virtues to everyone possible. If this results in an abundance of regulations and restrictions, that's the price we pay to open these areas up to everyone. The other side of the issue says that the main purpose of wild areas is to preserve the land in its natural state. Constructing roads and charging entrance fees detracts from the raw presence of nature. Both sides of this issue will be discussed here, and a preferable course of action suggested based on facts, logic, as well as personal experience.

Purpose of Our Wild Areas

If we assume that every American has the right to access National Parks, National Monuments, National Forests, and Wilderness Areas, then we have the responsibility to provide that access. Constructing roads and buildings within the area boundaries becomes necessary, along with charging user fees and entrance fees to pay for the construction. The increased presence of people on the land justifies imposing restrictions, such as how one is allowed to prepare one's food, where one can camp, specific types of recreation allowed, and where one is permitted to travel. The problem with the described approach is that it flies in the face of the purpose of the land. The National Park Service states that its purpose is "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations" (The National Park System: Caring for the American Legacy). At present, the NPS seems to have concentrated almost entirely on "providing for the enjoyment of the parks," and totally disregarding their responsibility to do so "in such will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." The most significant aspect of these areas is their beauty, a beauty which is hindered by development. For instance, when you visit Yosemite National Park, and end up sitting in traffic for hours on end, this enjoyment has been removed. Traffic, hotels, and construction create a barrier between the individual and the rawness of nature. In a recent examination of the present state of Yosemite National Park in the 1998 American Alpine Journal, John Middendorf concludes:

It became clear to me that the NPS should protect, preserve and encourage our ability to get close to nature, not aid and abet in an increasing isolation from its power. With every acre lost to development in our public lands, humanity's ability to connect with nature is incrementally decreased. Exclusive hotels should not supercede the right to experience Yosemite naturally. The soul can not be commercialized. (p. 116)

Development and User Fees

Pay to Play? (Camp4 stock photo) Development creates a financial crisis for the government. It takes money to construct the infrastructure necessary to accommodate the crowds that inundate nature every summer. The result of this has been the institution of user fees. When you enter any federal area, entrance fees are required, which range from a reasonable (if unnecessary) $4 to the outrageous $20 charged to enter most national parks. If you hope to travel through the park, additional fees are required. In the Grand Canyon, in addition to the entrance fee, backcountry hikers pay a $4/person/day impact fee on top of the $20 tag on a backcountry permit. All this money to go out into the wilderness and "leave no trace." The biggest problem with all of these fees is that they don't end up supporting backcountry preservation, or anything even close. The majority of these fees go towards paying for the roads and hookups for RV users and the infrastructure necessary to control the large crowds around campgrounds (which also cost additional money to use). According to journalist and backcountryman Andy Dappen (1999):

More importantly, there are matters of fairness. At Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument, $176 million was spent on a new highway leading to three new visitor centers, grand structures that siphoned an additional $50 million of taxpayer's funds. Monument visitors pay nothing to drive the new highway and $8 for a three-day pass into the heavily staffed visitor centers. But scaling the mountain (which relies on a gravel road, a trail, and a pit toilet) costs visitors $15 per day - which this mountaintop rebel says is "a money grab targeted at a group lacking the voice to protest."

Rather than enforcing user fees, the NPS should focus on reducing it's responsibilities. When roads aren't necessary, don't build them. The work entailed in reaching the scenery is what makes it special anyway. Another alarming fact about user fees is their true purpose. As most people know, cuts have been made to the budgets of the NPS, the National Forest Service, and other institutions responsible for our wilderness areas. These cuts were supposedly made to help reduce government spending. However, in 1996, a Fee Demonstration Program was begun at the same time as these budget cuts, to evaluate how successful it would be to charge users for use of the land. As I found at the website

Trail fees now being charged by the USFS are part of a national program being foisted upon the public through the co-operative efforts of Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-AK) and the American Recreation Coalition. Murkowski is the anti-environmental Senator from Alaska leading a Congressional effort to privatize our public lands. ARC is the wise-use, business consortium paying to implement the trail fee program. ARC's ultimate objective is to acquire, for its corporate members, the "rights" to develop and operate recreational facilities upon these lands. This fee program is only a first step. Congressional budget cuts are creating a deliberate maintenance crisis for federally managed recreation lands and facilities. The rescue of a decaying public system, by private investors and corporate sponsors, is the intended outcome. (Wild Wilderness)


View of Grand Tetond National Park (Camp4 stock photo) Public transportation has also become a problem in wild areas. An overabundance of roads and even highways have clogged the natural feel many of these areas once had. For example, if you are in central California, traveling from east to west, the shortest route is along State Highway 120, which leads directly through the heart of Yosemite National Park. On a recent summer afternoon, I experienced a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam in the middle of a national park, trying to reach Yosemite Valley. It took me over three hours to travel less than 50 miles. The serenity of the surrounding forest was lost and the peace of Tuolomne Meadows disrupted. I paid a $20 entrance fee to sit in traffic. Additionally, because of the need of wider roads to support so many vehicles, construction sites obstructed my view of the bordering wilderness. Thoroughly disenchanted, I spent only 4 hours attempting to salvage a piece of the majesty of Yosemite Valley before leaving the park. When I developed my film from that day a few weeks later, I was disappointed to find that of the twenty or so photos I exposed in the Yosemite "wilderness" many of them were marred by human structures, and in one case a cloud of diesel smoke. After this experience, it became obvious to me that the bureaucracies governing public use of federal lands were not putting the preservation of the wilderness first. Instead, catering to the tourist, and more specifically the tourist's wallet, seemed to be the priority.


What is the more important philosophy, preserving the wilderness or providing a way for the maximum number of people to visit it? Both are important, but this writer stops short of saying that every person has the right to visit these places. Preservation is the priority, visitation the privilege- and the responsibility. Experiencing these areas in a way such that the natural existence of the land is uninterrupted is surely appropriate. Preserving the wilderness does not require human absence. Far from it, I am in favor of public use. However, providing expensive lodging and global handicap access, then turning around and over regulating the use of fire or what spot of ground one may sleep on, is absurd and hypocritical to the purpose of nature. In an essay from his book Escape Routes, David Roberts discusses this issue as he explores the effects of increased public use in the canyonlands surrounding Moab, Utah:

The last night, camping on a shelf above the dry streambed, I engaged in a brief and half-hearted debate with myself, then gathered dead juniper and pinon sticks. According to the official regulations governing the parcel of federeal land I had laid my sleeping bag on, campfires were not allowed. Tough s***, I said to the bureaucrats in my head, desk-bound ghosts in Moab and Monticello.

Of the small fire I sat beside for three peaceful hours, as Cygnus and Lyra wheeled overhead, not a trace would remain when I left in the morning. My collecting foray had made an infinitesimal dent in the stock of dead branches decomposing on the shelf behind me. The reason for my fire was neither warmth- it was a mild night- nor cooking.

I built a fire because that was what my ancestors had done in the Neolithic. The fire was to stare into, to muse upon, to pry open the senses with. The wilderness was there to be touched. (p. 149-150)

If we return to non-mechanized forms of travel, and remove commercial pursuits from the wilderness, the rest will take care of itself. Only those who will take care of the land they appreciate will make the effort to reach these areas. Financial concerns will be minimal in these areas because infrastructure will not be necessary. If we let the wilderness take care of itself, rather than reshaping it to suit the needs of people unwilling to learn how to enter it, the issue would cease to be and issue. I, for one, will continue to respect the wilderness by practicing "leave no trace" ethics and discouraging the profiteering that is currently being pursued in our wild areas.


Dappen, Andy. (1999, February). Should We Pay to Play? Climbing, 182, 94+.

Middendorf, John. (1998). Yosemite's Last Stand. The American Alpine Journal, 40(72), 113-116.

National Park Service. (No date). The National Park System: Caring for the American Legacy, [On-line]. Available:

Roberts, David. (1997). Escape Routes. Seattle, WA: The Mountaineers.

Silver, Scott. (No date). Wild Wilderness Homepage, [On-line]. Available:

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