Pay to Play? The Past, Present, and Future of Recreation Fees on Federal Public Lands
The United States has historically valued free access to most public lands. But federal land management agencies also rely on users’ fee dollars to support critical operations. This tension between “free access” and “user pays” has been an important feature of public land law since the late 1800s. The primary statute at issue is the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA), which authorizes fees at some sites while mandating free access at others. As interest in outdoor recreation continues to grow, the public land system faces new challenges, including new environmental, behavioral, and experiential impacts. But FLREA is not up to the task, and its shortcomings have led to litigation, public frustration, and calls by members of Congress for increased agency transparency. This Article proposes updates to both FLREA and agency policies to ensure agencies consider appropriate alternatives before implementing new fees or reservation systems. It suggests agencies can implement these updates in a standardized and equitable manner that balances robust public access with resource protection.