Recreation Fees:

Agencies Can Better Implement the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act and Account for Fee Revenues

GAO-06-1016: Published: Sep 22, 2006. Publicly Released: Sep 25, 2006.

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In recent years, Congress has expressed concerns about the federal land management agencies' ability to provide quality recreational opportunities and reduce visitor confusion over the variety of user fees. In December 2004, Congress passed the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (REA) to standardize recreation fee collection and use at federal lands and waters. GAO was asked to determine (1) what the agencies have done to coordinate implementation of REA, (2) what agencies have done to implement REA, (3) the extent to which agencies have controls and accounting procedures for collected fees, (4) how projects and activities are selected to receive funding from fees, and (5) the extent of unobligated fund balances. To answer these objectives, GAO reviewed agency guidance, analyzed fee data, interviewed officials, visited 26 fee-collecting units, and administered a nationwide survey to 900 fee-collecting units.

The Departments of the Interior (DOI) and Agriculture (USDA) established four working groups to facilitate interagency cooperation and coordination of REA implementation. Each working group has made progress, but some issues remain unresolved. For example, the Interagency Pass working group has yet to determine the price to charge for the new pass, which is to be implemented in January 2007. To implement REA, agencies reviewed their fee programs and made modifications to the fee programs at some of their units. For example, several of USDA's Forest Service units dropped 437 sites from their fee program, such as picnic areas, because they did not meet REA criteria. However, not all units are in compliance with REA. Many agency officials said that while the agencies have issued some interim guidance, REA was difficult to interpret and suggested the need for more specific and detailed guidance on the fee program. In addition, DOI's Bureau of Reclamation has not yet determined whether to implement REA. Reclamation is assessing how REA applies to its operations. Some agencies lack adequate controls and accounting procedures for collected recreation fees and lack effective guidance for establishing such controls. On the basis of visits, some units did not have an effective means of verifying whether all collected fees are accounted for. In addition, many units have not implemented a system of routine audits to help ensure that fees are collected and used as authorized and that collected funds are safeguarded. The various agencies participating under REA have different processes for selecting projects to be funded with recreation fee revenues. At DOI's Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service and USDA's Forest Service, most proposed projects are approved at the local unit level, usually within a few weeks. At DOI's National Park Service, fee projects are reviewed and approved at the unit, regional, and headquarters or department level before projects are funded. According to National Park Service officials, under this process, it can sometimes take a year or more to obtain approval for a requested fee project, which delays project implementation and contributes to unobligated fee revenue balances. Agencies have $300 million in unobligated fee revenue balances. Unit officials cited several reasons for the unobligated balances, such as the need to save for large projects. Many unit officials also said that recreation fee revenues are essential to providing services at their recreation areas that would not otherwise be funded.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The Forest Service has drafted regulations and implementing guidance for the recreation fee program and is moving them through its regulations approval process, according to a Forest Service official in June 2010.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the Forest Service's implementation of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act and improve the accountability and controls for collected recreation fees, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to promptly issue final regulations and implementing guidance on the fee program, including detailed policy and procedure guidance.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2007, the Bureau of Reclamation set forth its requirements for implementing and managing the REA fee program.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should direct the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation to expedite its decision on implementation of REA.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) updated its Recreation Permit and Fee Manual, including a section on recreation fee collections policy; it also incorporated best practices from the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program in its updated Recreation Permit and Fee Handbook. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) included detailed collection and accounting procedures in its updated guidance; it also added the recreation fee collection process to its Division of Financial Management's review of internal controls over financial reporting.

    Recommendation: In order to improve agencies' implementation of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act and improve the accountability and controls for recreation fee collection, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director, Bureau of Land Management and Director, Fish and Wildlife Services to ascertain the extent to which their units do not have effective processes and procedures for accounting for and controlling collected fees and develop guidance for implementing appropriate and effective internal controls over cash management. This guidance for implementing such controls should identify and encourage the use of best practices, such as routine audits.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife Service each updated their guidance on the Recreation Fee Program.

    Recommendation: In order to improve agencies' implementation of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act and improve the accountability and controls for recreation fee collection, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director, National Park Service; Director, Bureau of Land Management; and Director, Fish and Wildlife Service to promptly issue final regulations and implementation guidance on the fee program, including detailed policy and procedure guidance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Recreation Resource Advisory Committees were formed and met to review fee proposals.

    Recommendation: To allow for public input on new fees or modifications to existing fees, the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture should expedite completing the steps needed for the Recreation Resource Advisory Committees and existing advisory councils to begin implementing REA.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Recreation Resource Advisory Committees were formed and met to review fee proposals.

    Recommendation: To allow for public input on new fees or modifications to existing fees, the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture should expedite completing the steps needed for the Recreation Resource Advisory Committees and existing advisory councils to begin implementing REA.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Forest Service updated and revised its policies and procedures for Billings and Collections in Chapter 6530 of the Forest Service Manual, effective December 13, 2007. Forest Service also revised and clarified portions of its Collection Officers Handbook (FSH 6509.14). Among the changes to the handbook were modifications to Chapter 10 - Collection Activities, effective May 15, 2008 and revisions and clarifications to Chapter - Zero Code, effective June 18, 2008. Specifically, instructions related to conducting an audit are outlined in sections 03.7 and 04.16 of Chapter Zero Code. To augment the audit program, Forest Service senior management also assigned a full-time Albuquerque Service Center resource to monitor the fee program.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the Forest Service's implementation of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act and improve the accountability and controls for collected recreation fees, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to ascertain the extent to which its units do not have effective processes and procedures for accounting for and controlling collected fees and develop guidance for implementing appropriate and effective internal controls over cash management. This guidance for implementing such controls should identify and encourage the use of best practices, such as routine audits.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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