The National Park Service doesn't have to apologize for charging higher fees to enter parks, hike trails, launch boats or listen to ranger talks.
The visiting public believes the higher price is worth it."We hired two researchers from the University of Minnesota to survey attitudes and halfway through they called up and said, `We don't need to do this anymore,' " Tim Stone, NPS fee program manager in Washington, told park superintendents gathered here for their annual convention. "More than 80 percent of the people surveyed feel the higher fees are just fine or are actually too low."
The reaction is a relief to NPS officials because fee hikes nationwide are expected to generate $140 million this year at national parks, representing 11 percent of the agency's entire operating budget.
Authorized by Congress in 1995, the demonstration fee program allows federal land managers - the Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - to test new or higher access fees at select recreation sites.
A survey by the U.S. Forest Service also found that more than 60 percent of forest visitors agreed that opportunities and services they found were at least equal to what they paid.
Although the price to enter most of the country's bigger national parks has doubled, visitation has not been "significantly affected," officials claim.
"But we have not surveyed people who did not come to the parks because they no longer could afford it," said Stone, adding that more intensive probing of attitudes is planned.
At the same time, agency bosses are confident they will succeed in making the fees permanent.
Utah Rep. Jim Hansen, chairman of the House national parks subcommittee, recently held an oversight hearing on the new fee program.
"It went extremely well," said Stone. "I've never used the word `lovefest' in connection with an oversight hearing before, but this was as close as we've come."
The attraction to the new fee program is having the money stay at the point of collection, rather than turning all fees over to the general treasury, which has been the historic practice.
Participating agencies retain all the demonstration project money, with 80 percent of the new fees going to maintenance or improvements at the sites that collected the money and the other 20 percent to a pool for work at parks that are not demonstration sites.
"We are not hiring more people, we are investing in retiring our multibillion-dollar backlog of repair and construction projects," said Stone.
But there have been problems uncovered with the new fee program. At one Western national park - which Stone declined to name - a longtime employee was caught embezzling "tens of thousands" of dollars from entrance fees.
In other parks, Stone said some superintendents view the new fees as more donations than mandatory, and rangers are refusing to enforce the program.
"The toughest crowd I speak to on fees is the internal audience," said Stone. "I know all employees deep down wish that all parks were free, that we could cast the money changers out of the temple and everyone could come and go as they please. But that's not reality."