March 17, 2015
Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act:
Overview and Issues
The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA)
(16 U.S.C. §§6801-6814) authorizes five agencies to charge
and collect fees on federal recreational lands and waters.
The five agencies are the Bureau of Land Management
(BLM), Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation), Fish and
Wildlife Service (FWS), and National Park Service (NPS)
in the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Forest
Service (FS) in the Department of Agriculture. The
agencies retain the collected fees primarily for on-site
improvements. Recreation fees generally have represented a
small portion of overall agency financing.
Current Status. Agencies are authorized to charge fees at
recreation sites through September 30, 2016. Initially, the
authority was for a 10-year period, expiring December 8,
2014, but program extensions were enacted.
Types of Fees. FLREA authorizes different kinds of fees,
outlines criteria for establishing fees, and prohibits charging
fees for certain activities or services. Only the FWS and
NPS can charge entrance fees, whereas the BLM,
Reclamation, and FS can charge “standard amenity fees” in
areas or circumstances where a certain level of services or
facilities are available. All five agencies also may charge an
“expanded amenity fee” for specialized services.
Criteria for Establishing Fees. Fee criteria in FLREA
were intended to promote fairness and consistency among
agencies and locations and to minimize confusion, burden,
and overlap of fees. For instance, fees are to be
commensurate with benefits and services provided. The
Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture
(the Secretaries) are to consider comparable fees charged
elsewhere, such as by nearby private providers of recreation
services; establish the minimum number of fees; and
consider the aggregate effect of fees on recreation users and
providers. The Secretaries must provide an opportunity for
public participation in establishing fees.
Recreation Passes. FLREA authorizes the establishment of
a national pass for recreation at a variety of sites managed
by different agencies. The “America the Beautiful–National
Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass” covers
entrance fees and standard amenity fees at areas where such
fees are charged. The annual pass is $80 per year, but there
are discounted or free versions for certain visitors (U.S.
military personnel, individuals who are permanently
disabled, seniors, and volunteers). Agencies also have
established site-specific and regional multi-entity passes.
Fee Sites. FS currently manages about 27,000 developed
recreation sites, of which 3,759 collect fees under FLREA.
Most of these FS sites provide overnight services, such as
campgrounds and cabin/lookout rentals. (Approximately
another 2,300 FS sites charge other types of fees.) One
Reclamation site charges a fee. Current statistics on fee
sites for the other three agencies are not readily available.
However, based on federal areas in 2012, 184 of 397 NPS
units, 141 of 556 FWS refuges, and approximately 430 of
BLM’s nearly 3,600 developed recreation sites charged fees
under FLREA. Taken together, a majority of these five
agencies’ sites have not been charging recreation fees.
Retention of Fees. Each agency can retain and spend the
revenue collected without further appropriation. Under
FLREA, at least 80% of the revenue collected is to be
retained and used at the site where it was generated,
although the Secretaries can reduce that amount to not less
than 60% for a fiscal year if collections exceed reasonable
needs. The remaining collections are to be used agencywide, at the discretion of the agency. The law contains other
provisions for the distribution of certain collections,
including from the sale of recreation passes.
Recreation Fee Receipts. In FY2014, the five agencies
collected a total of $278.6 million in recreation receipts
under FLREA. NPS took in 67% of the revenue, and the
NPS and FS together collected 92% of the FY2014 total.
Recreation revenues under FLREA (and a predecessor
program) increased 42% over the past decade, from $196.0
million in FY2005, with most of the increase in the first
half of the period. Figure 1 shows the receipts for the
agencies over the second half of the decade.
Figure 1. Recreation Fee Receipts, FY2010-FY2014
Sources: BLM, FWS, and NPS annual budget justifications; Triennial
Report to Congress: Implementation of the Federal Lands Recreation
Enhancement Act, DOI and FS, May 2012; and data provided to CRS
by FS and Reclamation on March 2-3, 2015.
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Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act: Overview and Issues
Use of Fees. The agencies have broad discretion in using
revenues for purposes specified in FLREA, which aim to
benefit visitors directly. Purposes include facility
maintenance, repair, and enhancement; interpretation and
visitor services; signs; certain habitat restoration; and law
enforcement. The Secretaries may not use more than 15%
of collections for program administration, overhead, and
opinion persist as to the need for recreation fees and how
fee programs should operate. Ongoing deliberations
encompass whether to let FLREA expire, extend it, or make
it permanent, and how to structure any extended or
permanent program. For example, the President has
supported making the program permanent, while 113th
Congress legislation would have authorized fees through
2020 under an amended program.
The agencies collectively obligated $245.0 million in
FY2014 for varied purposes. The largest amount of funds,
37%, was used for repair and maintenance of assets,
including deferred maintenance (estimated at $18.9 billion
for the five agencies in FY2014). Another 22% was used
for interpretation and visitor services, with 21% used for
both fee collection costs and administration, overhead, and
indirect costs. The remainder was used for other purposes.
(See Figure 2.)
Fee supporters contend that recreation fees improve
recreation and visitor services. Some believe the current
program establishes fees in appropriate circumstances,
promotes fair and similar fees among agencies, simplifies
fees through passes, fosters public involvement in fee
decisions, and keeps most fees on-site for improvements
that visitors desire. They also contend that visitors should
pay for the use of lands and services.
Figure 2. Fee Obligation by Project Type, FY2014
(in millions of dollars)
Sources: See Figure 1.
Note: Figures sum to $244.7 million because Reclamation did not
identify the project type for the remaining $0.3 million.
Unobligated Balances. The recreation fee program
historically has had a large balance of unobligated funds.
These funds accumulated under FLREA and a predecessor
program. Agencies carry over funds from one year to the
next for several reasons, including to conduct
environmental analysis, design, and engineering of projects
and to fund next year’s operations and large projects.
In FY2014, agency obligation of available funds ranged
from 28% for Reclamation to 60% for FS. (See Figure 3.)
Although some agencies have implemented policies to
reduce unobligated balances, obligations by all agencies (of
$471.2 million in total available funds) decreased from 63%
in FY2010 to 52% in FY2014. However, as a percentage of
FY2014 recreation fee revenues ($278.6 million), agencies
collectively obligated about 88% of funds.
Some support extending the program to other agencies,
especially the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Others assert
opportunities for current agencies to charge new or
increased fees. For instance, DOI Inspector General reports
(February 2015) highlight areas where BLM and NPS could
explore increasing revenues, such as NPS entrance,
interagency pass, and commercial bus tour fees, as well as
BLM areas with fees below market value and areas without
fees but heavy use. Periodic fee assessments by agencies
examine where increased fees and other changes might be
warranted. The NPS is currently undertaking an assessment,
for example, and has begun implementing fee changes.
Some critics oppose recreation fees in general, for instance,
as doubly taxing the recreating public, while others believe
they are appropriate for fewer agencies or types of lands.
Still others find fault with the current program for not
requiring congressional approval of fees, not simplifying
fees enough, not ensuring that most fees are used to reduce
agencies’ maintenance backlogs, not requiring more of the
collections to stay at the sites where collected, or not
obligating funds more quickly.
Figure 3. Fee Revenues and Obligations, FY2014
Sources: See Figure 1.
Note: Reclamation is not shown due to relatively small amounts.
Carol Hardy Vincent, email@example.com, 7-8651
Congress continues to oversee agency efforts to establish,
collect, and spend recreation fees under FLREA. Recreation
fees have been controversial for decades, and differences of
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