Outdoor Recreation Fees: Where the Money Goes and Why

If you’re a lover of the out­doors, chances are you’ve paid a fee of some kind (on top of the tax­es we all pay). Some camp­ground and day-use fees may be min­i­mal, while oth­ers seem to get larg­er every year. It may make you grum­ble a bit as you hand over your hard-earned cash, but it’s the price we pay to enjoy the won­drous moun­tains, canyons, lakes, and oth­er breath­tak­ing scenery our pub­lic lands have to offer. Want to know where the out­door recre­ation fees go and how they pro­tect 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. So it takes more and more resources to main­tain them. Park pass­es and fees typ­i­cal­ly pay for trails, trail main­te­nance, and camp­grounds. And in many cas­es, they cov­er pic­nic shel­ters, 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 your mon­ey is being put to good use. And it will allow oth­ers to enjoy pub­lic lands far into the future.

Camp­ground Fees
If you choose to camp in a non-dis­persed camp­ground, chances are you’re going to pay a fee. Many of these camp­grounds come with hookups, vault toi­lets, and oth­er ameni­ties. The fees you pay are not only used to main­tain the grounds, but they’re also used for the trail sys­tems near­by. Fees also often pay for haul­ing out the trash or human waste left behind in the area.

Not a fan of camp­ing close enough to hear your neigh­bors blar­ing music? Pre­fer more prim­i­tive, dis­persed camp­ing? You prob­a­bly won’t have to pay a fee. How­ev­er, if you’re camp­ing in a nation­al for­est, most entrances have park­ing fees or dona­tion box­es at trail­heads. If there’s no fee, it’s good prac­tice to leave a dona­tion since it’s typ­i­cal­ly used to pay for trail main­te­nance. And don’t for­get to pay for park­ing if required.

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 mon­ey is used to pre­serve fish­ing and wildlife envi­ron­ments such as lakes, rivers, grass­lands, and moun­tain­ous regions. Are you a hik­er, pad­dler, rafter, or gen­er­al adven­tur­er? You’ve prob­a­bly enjoyed these places.

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.