A bill to direct the Secretary of the Interior to make free National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Passes available to members of the Armed Forces
STATEMENT FOR THE RECORD, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE HOUSE COMMITTEE ON NATURAL RESOURCES SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS, FORESTS, AND PUBLIC LANDS CONCERNING H.R. 4300, TO DIRECT THE SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR TO MAKE FREE NATIONAL PARKS AND FEDERAL RECREATION LANDS PASSES AVAILABLE TO MEMBERS OF THE ARMED FORCES, AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES.
JULY 13, 2021
Chairman Neguse, Ranking Member Fulcher, and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to provide the Department of the Interior’s views on H.R. 4300, a bill to direct the Secretary of the Interior to make free National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Passes available to members of the Armed Forces, and for other purposes.
The Department supports H.R. 4300, as it would provide statutory certainty and administrative efficiency for the recreation passes that Federal land management agencies currently offer to active-duty U.S. military service members and their families, veterans, and Gold Star Family members. These recreation passes provide a tangible way to recognize the service and sacrifice of members of the armed forces and their families. However, because the bill was only recently introduced, the Department has not fully reviewed the bill language and may want to recommend amendments for the Committee’s consideration in addition to the amendment described later in this statement.
H.R. 4300 would amend the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) to require the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture to offer no-cost annual passes to active-duty military members and their dependents and no-cost lifetime passes to veterans and members of Gold Star Families. All three of these groups are currently eligible for free annual recreation passes. However, only the Gold Star Family members are eligible for passes by law; active-duty military members and their dependents, and veterans, are eligible for free annual passes through administrative decisions. These groups are eligible for no cost annual passes, not lifetime passes.
The Department believes that providing for these passes by law will provide certainty about the availability of these passes in the future. We also believe that it is appropriate to convert the current veterans annual pass, and the Gold Star Family annual pass, to lifetime passes, as that will save administrative costs for the agencies and reduce the time and effort of renewing passes for the veterans and Gold Star Family members themselves.
FLREA, enacted in 2004, authorizes the National Park Service (NPS), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) to collect and retain revenue and requires that fee revenue be used to enhance the visitor experience. At least 80 percent of the money stays in the park or recreation site where it is collected, and the other 20 percent is used to benefit parks or sites that do not collect fees.
As a part of FLREA, Congress established the multi-agency America the Beautiful - The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass Program (Interagency Pass Program) to cover entrance fees for the NPS and FWS and standard amenity recreation fees for the BLM, USFS, and BOR. The Interagency Pass Program began in 2007 and included an annual pass for $80, as well as a $10 lifetime pass (later changed to $80) for those age 62 years or older (Lifetime Senior Pass), and a free lifetime pass for persons with permanent disabilities (Access Pass). Public Law 113-121, enacted in 2014, authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to also participate in the Interagency Pass Program. In 2019, an estimated three million passes were sold or distributed by these six agencies. Revenue from the sale of the passes—which totaled $96.1 million in 2019—is a critical source of supplemental funding for these agencies that significantly enhances their efforts to address maintenance issues, better manage federal lands, and respond to changes in visitation levels and service requirements.
While the Department supports enacting H.R. 4300, we are mindful about the impact that free Federal recreation passes will have on recreation fee revenues and encourage Congress to carefully consider the need for adequate resources so that members of the Armed Forces and all Americans can enjoy their public lands. The current Gold Star Families pass and the veterans pass, authorized by Secretarial Orders in October 2020, have been available for less than a year, during a period when many national parks and other public lands facilities experienced reduced visitation due to the pandemic. We do not yet have information comparing fee revenue in the years before and after these two passes were made available. However, knowing that there are about 18 million veterans in the U.S. (about seven percent of the U.S. population) and about 500,000 Gold Star Families, we anticipate a decrease in recreation fee revenue from the amounts raised prior to 2020. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss with the Committee ways we can ensure that the fee program continues to generate a substantial amount of revenue to benefit visitors to our parks and public lands, as Congress intended.
We also want to note that FLREA is not a permanent program. Since the 10-year initial authorization for the program expired in 2013, Congress has extended the authority for the program in one- or two-year increments in appropriations bills. If the authority for FLREA were to expire, so too would the authority for no-cost recreation passes.
The Department recommends that the long title of the bill be amended to make reference to the Secretary of Agriculture, in addition to the Secretary of the Interior, since the authority for the recreation pass program rests with both Secretaries. In addition, the Department may recommend additional clarifying amendments to ensure smooth implementation of the bill, following further consideration of the bill and discussion with the Committee.
Thank you for the opportunity to provide this statement on H.R. 4300.