Critics say some national parks and forests are a little too energetic in seeking money through newly allowed fees - and are nickel-and-diming visitors to death.
But the Interior Department told the Senate Thursday that few problems exist - and said the public is very supportive of higher entrance and user fees (shepherded through Congress by Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah) that are beginning their second full season.But David Brown, executive director of America Outdoors, which represents outfitters who work on public lands, said an example of exorbitant fees by rangers hoping to bring more money to their area can be seen at the Mount St. Helens volcanic site.
He told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that families a year ago could visit it for free. But now it charges entrance fees, fees to hike on the volcano bed, fees to park at trail heads and fees for camping.
So, now it "costs approximately $48 per person over the age of 15. Most likely the overall cost per user compares favorably with the price of a weekend visit to a theme park," Brown said.
Dunham Gooding, president of the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America, said one national park - which he did not name - charges "a couple a $10 entrance fee, a $20 backcountry fee and a $30 fee for one night of camping at an undeveloped back-country location. It will cost them $60 for their two-day, backcountry backpacking trip."
He added, "Recreationists perceive this as a `nickel and dime approach,' and there is significant resentment about it."
Assistant Interior Secretary John Berry said public lands agencies are reviewing lessons learned from their first year of charging higher fees, but said the program has generally been successful.
"Overall, 83 percent of national park visitors surveyed said that they were either satisfied with the fees they paid or thought the fees were too low," he said.
He added that support is based on the knowledge that 80 percent of the fees will stay where they are collected to help improve facilities.
For example, he said, "In Paria Canyon, on the Arizona-Utah border, the Bureau of Land Management used fee revenues to maintain and upgrade sanitation facilities at trail heads."
Committee Chairman Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, noted, "The program resulted in a 61 percent increase in revenues amounting to nearly $55 million. Revenues are expected to increase even more significantly this year."
Berry said the higher fees have not diminished visitation to national parks and lands.
Murkowski warned agencies that for support of the fees to continue, they must show a marked improvement of visitor services and facilities.
"Visitors do not want to pay an entrance fee to a site where the roads are filled with potholes and the facilities are deteriorated," he said.