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Federal Land Fees: Where Does My Money Go?

Public lands are our country's playground, encompassing some of the most scenic mountains, forests, and waterways around. Although it may seem counter-intuitive to pay to park and enjoy our public lands, the money received from passes, permits, and other recreation fees are necessary for our parks, forests, and monuments to run smoothly.

Public lands are our country's playground, encompassing some of the most scenic mountains, forests, and waterways around. Although it may seem counter-intuitive to pay to park and enjoy our public lands, the money received from passes, permits and other recreation fees are necessary for our parks, forests and monuments to run smoothly. Revenue from these fees benefit current and future visitors, whether it be spent repairing seasonal damage, enhancing visitor centers or creating additional recreation opportunities.

How Fee Money is Distributed

Federal lands have strict regulations on where our fee revenue goes, and what our fee revenue can be spent on. When you purchase a pass or pay for a permit at an entrance booth or ranger station, 80 to 95 percent of your cost directly benefits the unit where the fees were collected while the remaining funds get divided up at the regional level. This means, when you purchase a pass at your favorite National Forest, the majority of your dollar goes straight back into the forest you purchased from.

When purchasing a Northwest Forest Pass online or in stores, the revenue is divided evenly between all 17 participating forests in Washington and Oregon. When purchasing a federal pass online or in stores, such as the Interagenecy Annual Pass, funds are divvied up evenly among the five participating agencies, including the National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Natural Resources.

How Fee Money is Spent

In order to spend fee revenue, agencies must ensure that the costs provide a direct benefit to those who pay the fees. Fee revenue expenditures are limited to the following five uses:

  • Repair and maintenance,
  • Visitor services
  • Habitat restoration
  • Law enforcement
  • Operating costs for the Recreation Fee Program

Agencies also make it a goal to spend fee revenues proportionately to the fee source—as in, fees from special recreation permits should be spent on the relevant special recreation, while general entry revenue should be spent on developed recreation sites.

Once fees have been distributed amongst the agencies, the Forest Service further divides its funds into the areas that public feedback advocated for the most. This included restroom maintenance, trail maintenance and improved safety.

On average, Forests in the northwest region have devoted 40 percent of fee revenue to repair and maintenance, 25 percent to visitor services, 3 percent on law enforcement, 8 percent on overhead for the fee program and less than 1 percent on fee agreements and habitat restoration. Any remaining funds are carried over year to year for use in large projects and startup costs.

NW Forest Pass 2017.jpgPhoto by Erik Haugen-Goodman.

Fee Revenue Accomplishments

To show the power of fee revenue, the Forest Service produces annual reports to showcase the accomplishments of the Recreation Fee Program. In addition to our fee dollars, the Forest Service and other federal agencies stretch our dollar even further by matching grants, sponsoring volunteer efforts (including WTA!) and forging partnerships. Programs like this add millions to the value of our dollar.

Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie

In 2016, the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest brought in over $1.5 million in revenue from Northwest Forest and Interagency Passes as well as other recreation fees. This past year, almost $72,000 went directly into trail maintenance projects for 2017, removing the fallen logs and brush that creep up every season. Another $18,000 went into the reopening to the popular Gothic Basin trail, which had previously been obstructed by an uncontrolled clay slide.

Additional funds were used to maintain over 650 miles of trails, repair the Skookum Flats trail, coordinate over $1 million in volunteer trail work, maintain cleanliness and pump toilets at over 80 recreation sites, providing Leave No Trace information to visitors and aid thousands of climbers with safety information when attempting Mount Baker.

GIFFORD PINCHOT

Similar to Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie, the Gifford Pinchot National Forest collected $1.5 million in pass revenue, including $70,000 from Mount Adams climbing permits. Much of the income from permit sales went back to the mountain, supplying over 8,000 climbers with up-to-date information, engaging in 21 search and rescue missions and cleaning up over 184 pounds of trash.

Nearly $500,000 in fee revenue was devoted to the operation of the Johnston Ridge Observatory on Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, which brings in over a quarter of a million visitors per year. This funding went towards the support of 988 interpretive ranger presentations, 130 guided hikes, 251 Junior Ranger programs and 75 school programs.

Another $125,000 in fees went towards the environmental education programs at one of the forests most popular trails, the Ape Caves. This site drew 31,000 visitors in 2016 and funds supported additional work by interpretive rangers as well as bat conservation programs.

Olympic

The Olympic National Forest saw over $650,000 in fee revenue this past year. $5,000 contributed to the restoration of the historic 1912 Louella Guard Station. Funds also helped secure a year-round crew from the Washington Conservation Corps to help restore tent pads, install picnic tables, repair informational signs and more across the forest.

Additional funds went into funding campground hosts at the Klahowya and Seal Rock Campgrounds, restoring informational signs, pumping vault toilets, maintaining cabins and enhancing recreation sites.

Okanogan Wenatchee

The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest is the largest in the state, and in 2016, it secured over $1.4 million in revenue from fees. $6,000 of those dollars went towards the reopening of the Soda Springs Campground, which was closed after a treacherous wind event in 2015 left 150 blowdowns throughout the site.

Remaining funds were spread among a host of other projects, including maintaining 80 campgrounds and 95 trailheads, supporting 20 campground hosts, installing new information boards, updating interpretive signs, providing guided snowshoe walks at Snoqualmie Pass and adding fire rings and picnic tables throughout the sites.

Colville

Located in the state’s remote northeasterly corner, the lesser-visited Colville National Forest pulled in a modest $50,000 revenue from fees in 2016. The Forest stretched that dollar to the best of their ability, directing $12,000 towards the reopening of the Sherman Overlook Campground. After officially closing 5 years ago due to hazardous trees damaged by the mountain pine beetle, hard-working crews removed close to 1,500 trees to bring the campground back into useable shape.

Another $2,700 was put into the restoration of the Swan Creek Campground and Trail which had endured severe damage during the 2015 North Star Fire. Along with additional funds, crews were able to construct a 30-ft retaining wall, install 400 ft. of railing, reconstruct 1.25 miles of lakeshore trail and many more safety-inducing fixes. Fees have also allowed the Forest to better fund water quality testing, removal of noxious weeds, longer camping seasons as well a whole host of other campground improvements.