Fees for Outdoor Recreation: Where the Money Goes and Why

outdoor recreationIf you’re a lover of the outdoors, chances are you’ve paid a fee of some kind—above the taxes we all pay—to enjoy the wondrous mountains, canyons, lakes, and other breathtaking scenery our public lands have to offer.

Some campground and day-use fees may be minimal, while others seem to get larger every year and make you grumble a bit as you hand over your hard-earned cash. Want to know where the money goes and how it protects our public lands? Read on!

National and State Park Passes and Fees
There has been a bit of commotion in recent years over the increase in cost to access some public lands. While many may see this as an unfair burden, it’s worth noting that most of these cost increases have occurred because more and more people are visiting our public spaces and, therefore, it takes more and more resources to maintain them. Park passes and fees typically pay for: trails and trail maintenance, picnic shelters, campgrounds, public toilets, infrastructure improvements, public education and outreach, garbage, and much more. If you find yourself cringing when you hand over the money for your pass, just remember that your money is being put to good use and will allow others to enjoy public lands far into the future.

Campground Fees
If you choose to camp in a non-dispersed campground, with hook-ups, vault toilets, and other amenities, chances are you’re going to pay a fee. These fees are not only used to maintain the campground, but they’re also used to maintain trail system that are nearby. Fees also often pay for hauling out trash or human waste left behind in the area.

If you aren’t a fan of camping on top of your neighbor and prefer more primitive dispersed camping, you probably won’t pay a fee. However, if you’re camping in a national forest, some national forest entrances have parking fees at trailheads or even donation boxes. Make sure to pay for parking if required and it’s good practice to leave a donation, since this money is typically used to pay for trail maintenance.

Permit Fees
You may have to obtain a permit to hike a specific trail or camp in a designated area. These permits do a few important things. First, they limit the number of people who can use the trail or area at a specific time. This cuts down on human environmental impact, and also ensures that the people who are paying for the experience aren’t sharing it with an unreasonable number of other adventurers. Secondly, the money obtained through permits is typically used to maintain that specific trail or area. For example, you must obtain a river trip permit if you plan to do a non-commercial raft trip. These fees are used for a variety of services including search and rescue teams and maintaining canyon trails.

Fish and Game Licensing Fees
Even if you aren’t an angler or hunter, if you enjoy public lands and wildlife, you really should shake their hand the next time you meet one in the backcountry. States are required to use 100 percent of the money obtained through licensing fees to maintain fish and wildlife populations in that particular state. If they fail to do so, they can risk losing federal funding. That said, fishers and hunters spend billions of dollars annually not only on licenses but also on excise taxes that are used to preserve fishing and wildlife environments such as lakes, rivers, grasslands, and mountainous regions—all of which you probably enjoy if you’re a hiker, paddler, rafter, or general adventurer.

Another fun fact: Some states, such as Colorado, use a small portion of fishing and game licenses to fund their search and rescue organizations. If you’re ever stranded on the side of a mountain or lost in the woods and need rescuing, send hunters and fishers a thank you card for their contribution.