The American Recreation Coalition (ARC) recently testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources on reauthorization of legislation allowing federal agencies to collect and retain entrance and recreation fees.

According to a news release, ARC told the Congress that recreationists supported fees but were concerned about the lack of focus on improvements in recreation experiences following the enactment of the 2004 Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act.

“We celebrate the marvelous shared legacy of our Great Outdoors – one in three acres of the surface of the nation managed by federal agencies and hosting well in excess of a billion recreation visits annually. Americans spend some $650 billion annually on fun outdoors and our Great Outdoors is a vital element in attracting international tourists,” Derrick Crandall, ARC President, told the panel.

Crandall noted that tight budgets made recreation fees even more important to federal agencies. Yet inadequate communications by the agencies and failure to strive for convenient and cost-effective fee programs have lessened support for fees by recreationists. He cited a letter to the Congress by a broad group of recreation, conservation and tourism organizations which outlined twelve consensus principles for federal recreation fees, including retention and use of the fees in close connection with the sites and the activities generating the fees. The organizations also called upon the Congress to include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the largest federal provider of recreation visits, under the same fee program as the other five agencies with major recreation management roles.

“Public involvement in federal recreation fee programs is vital. The first step is better notification of fee program proposals,” Crandall said. ARC and other groups urged the Congress to require the agencies to set up a system which would allow individuals and organizations to register to be notified of fee proposals, indicating geographic and other parameters.

The organizations also noted that federal fees are often inconvenient for visitors. Use of commonly-used non-federal payment systems, such as EZ-Pass and PayPal, should be tested, they told the Congress.

ARC’s testimony urged new outreach and promotion efforts by federal agencies. “Americans gain little from great places that are invisible to them. And much of the Great Outdoors is not on the radar screens of younger, more urban and more diverse Americans. Greatly improved websites, use of social media and a redirected www.recreation.gov can help us deal with federal site visitations that have lagged far behind population growth,” ARC’s spokesperson said. “We support partner-based promotional activities designed to shift demand to lesser visited sites or to non-peak periods. And in fact we would appreciate this committee making it clear to the agencies that building awareness and promotion are legitimate uses of a portion of FLREA receipts.”

Under existing provisions, fees generate more than $300 million annually to help support federal recreation programs. As recently as 1996, federal recreation fees were not retained by the collecting agencies. ARC and other organizations believe that the public will support continued and even increased fees that deliver the experiences the public seeks when visiting national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges and other public lands and waters.

Copies of the ARC testimony and the multi-organizational letter are available at www.funoutdoors.com. The hearing can be viewed here.