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In Brief: Why the Change in Fees?

Provided by the USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region Inyo National Forest

Mono Basin Scenic Area
Recreation Fee Demonstration Project

In an effort to be responsive to public feedback on the Recreation Fee Demonstration Project in the Mono Basin Scenic Area, the Inyo National Forest has changed the fee structure for the Scenic Area Visitor Center(SAVC) and the South Tufa area. Over the past two years, the public has expressed opposition over the charge to view the exhibits and film at the Scenic Area Visitor Center. Consequently, visitation to the exhibits and film portions of the SAVC has dropped by nearly one-third. By abolishing the fees at the SAVC, an additional 28,000 to 36,000 visitors are expected to experience the exhibits and film. By reaching these additional visitors, the Forest Service will further its goals of enhancing visitors' experiences and appreciation of the natural and cultural values of the Mono Basin. Meeting these goals will increase public support in caring for the Mono Basin's unique qualities and resources.

To continue to provide resource protection and enhancement, maintain and increase visitor services, and to provide education programs and exhibits within the Mono Basin Scenic Area, the fees at the South Tufa area have increased from $2.00 per person to $3.00 per person. Public support and financial probabilities were carefully considered when increasing the fees. Studies conducted by Penn State and the Stanford Alumni Consulting Team in 1998-99 indicated that an increase in fees at South Tufa would be supported by the public and provide the needed revenues. The demonstration aspect of the project allows this flexibility to test different fee rates, while being responsive to public feedback and financial realities.

A significant provision of this legislation is that 95% of the fees collected go directly back into the site. Eighty percent is spent on maintenance, improvements and enhancements, and 15% is spent on the cost of collecting the fees for the program. Historically, revenue collected from fees on national forest system lands has gone into the U.S. Treasury. There is an increased demand for recreation opportunities at nationally recognized areas, such as the Mono Basin Scenic Area. After construction of the $4.5 million dollar Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center in the early 1990's, additional operation and maintenance (O&M) funds to the Forest were not available. Hence, the Forest funded the annual O&M costs of nearly $300,000 out of normal recreation allocations. Faced with little or no prospect for an increase of appropriated recreation funds, the Forest Service views the Recreation Fee Demonstration Project as a good opportunity to help achieve its mission and provide quality land management and visitor services that the public expects and deserves.

As Forest Service budgets decline, the Fee Demonstration Program has enabled the Mono Basin Scenic Area to maintain staffing at the SAVC and increase staffing at South Tufa, which provides increased visitor services and assistance, resource protection, and education. This level of staffing and hours of operation would not have been maintained with current Forest budgets, causing probable negative impacts on the local economy and resources of the Basin. (click here to see a comparison of benefits with and without the Fee Demo)

Collections and Expenditures (click here to see the balance sheet)
The Mono Basin Scenic Area became a Fee Demonstration Project in 1997 and began
charging fees in April of that year. During federal fiscal year 1997, $87,000 was collected and $74,400 was spent. Approximately $57,000 was collected at South Tufa and $30,000 was collected at the Visitor Center. In this first year of operation, $39,000 was spent on staffing South Tufa to provide visitor services and assistance, resource protection, interpretive programs, and maintaining the site. A kiosk and other improvements were constructed to better collect the fees and serve the public. The Visitor Center continued to provide visitor services being supported by $24,000 in fee revenues to provide enhanced staffing at the information desk and maintenance beyond appropriated funds, and to cover the costs of collections. Nearly $5,000 of Fee Demonstration dollars was spent on interpretation and school programs. Five-percent of the funds collected ($4,400) was reimbursed to the National Forest system and $2,200 was reimbursed to the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve. The balance was utilized as cash flow to staff the Visitor Center when visitation and collections were lower, and during the spring until enough revenue was generated to cover costs at South Tufa.

During the second federal fiscal year of operation (1998), $92,000 was collected at the two fee sites, with $60,000 collected at South Tufa and $32,000 collected at the Visitor Center. $71,300 was spent with more dollars available for staffing the South Tufa site ($33,000), the Visitor Center ($23,000) and continuing the interpretive and educational programs ($4,900). The balance, after reimbursements ($4,600 to the National Forest system and $5,800 to the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve), was carried over into federal fiscal year 1999 for cash flow during the slower visitation months and applied to projects to enhance the Scenic Area.

In the summer of 1999, the Forest Service implemented a change in fee structure (please see Inyo National Forest publication "Why The Change In Fees?"). Approximately $85,000 was collected in federal fiscal year 1999, primarily at the South Tufa area. Expenditures totaled $69,900 and included $9,700 spent on staffing the Visitor Center, $41,100 for staffing, resource protection, maintenance and collections at South Tufa, $1,400 for interpretive trail repair, $2,300 on monitoring Mill and Wilson creeks stream flows, and reimbursements to the National Forest system ($3,400) and the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve ($12,000). The balance was carried over in the federal fiscal year 2000 for cash flow during the slower visitation months. A portion of the balance of collections will also be applied to a variety of projects in the Mono Basin Scenic Area including developing and fabricating a new Visitor Center exhibit on water issues and habitat restoration, developing a short video on restoration for the Visitor Center, continued monitoring of stream flows of Mill and Wilson Creeks, purchasing fire prevention equipment for a historic ranch within the Scenic Area, and contributing to resource protection projects.

Of the money collected, five percent is reimbursed to the National Forest system and 7% to the California Dept. of Parks and Recreation (Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve). The balances are utilized as cash flow to staff the Visitor Center when visitation and collections are lower, and until enough revenue is generated to cover costs at South Tufa. For a more detailed account of the collections and expenditures, please review the Inyo National Forest publication "Where Did The Fees Go"? Projects utilizing the recreation fee demonstration money collected at South Tufa for the year 2000 include developing and fabricating a new Visitor Center exhibit on water issues and habitat restoration, developing a short video on restoration at the Visitor Center, monitoring stream flows of Mill and Wilson Creeks, fire prevention equipment for a historic ranch within the Scenic Area, and resource protecton projects.

Revenues collected from the recreation fee demonstration program contribute to continued services for the nearly quarter of a million people who visit South Tufa and the Visitor Center annually. As Forest Service recreation dollars decline, the Fee Demonstration Program has enabled the Mono Basin Scenic Area to maintain or increase staffing at the Visitor Center and South Tufa, providing increased visitor services and assistance, resource protection, and education. This level of staffing and hours of operation would not have been maintained with current Forest budgets, causing probable negative impacts on the local economy and the unique resources of the Mono Basin.

Background on the Recreation Fee Demonstration Project: Keeping Public Lands Public
In 1996, Congress passed the Omnibus Consolidated Recisions and Appropriations Act of 1996 (PL 104-134) authorizing the Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to test the feasibility of charging fees at various recreation areas throughout the country. Under this Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, each of the above mentioned land managing agencies was given authority to select sites for a pilot program. A variety of fee types and structures are being tested to help determine the most effective and successful fee collection methods. Agencies will be evaluating the impacts of fees on recreation use, local economies and people to test the public's support for the test and to determine how well the test worked. Congress has recently extended the test through Sept. 30, 2001.

Comments on the Recreation Fee Demonstration Project in the Mono Basin:
If you would like to provide comments on the recreation fees collected at the Mono Basin, please fill out a comment card available at the Scenic Area Visitor Center and the South Tufa kiosk. Written comments may be sent to: Inyo National Forest, Mono Basin Scenic Area Manager, P.O. Box 429, Lee Vining, CA 93541 or by calling the Scenic Area Manager at (760) 647-3010.

MLC Note: This information was provided to the Mono Lake Committee by the US Forest Service and has been posted here for your convenience; it does not necessarily represent the views of the Mono Lake Committee. Click here for the Mono Lake Committee position.

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Last Updated January 29, 2007