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Slamming the Door on Low-Income People?

  • J. Bishop Grewell

    A federal program that began in 1996 has raised fees at national parks, forests, and other public lands. This policy, which may become permanent, raises a question: Is it unfair to low-income people to charge substantial entrance fees?

    A quandary really has two parts: Do recreational fees in price lower-income users out of public lands? If so, what done about it?

    Research on the first question shows that low-income families spend less time in outdoor recreation, including visits to national parks, than higher-income families. But fees are probably not the reason.

    Some surveys do suggest that introducing fees would lead low-income users to visit less. Researchers surveyed visitors to day-use sites operated by the Army Corps of Engineers (Reiling et al. 1996) and Maine state park campgrounds (Reiling, Cheng, and Trott 1992). They concluded that fees would lower visitation by low-income people. In both cases, however, people were interviewed about hypothetical situations.

    New Hampshire and Vermont residents were asked if a $5 increase in access fees would affect their visitation. Forty-nine percent of low-income respondents said it would. But when told that access fees had already increased over the previous five years, 60 percent of the low-income respondents said it had not affected them or they had “just paid” the increases (More and Stevens 2000, 347-49). This suggests that intentions voiced in surveys and actual actions may differ.

    Costs do apparently affect many low-income families’ decisions not to spend time at national parks and forests-but the costs are travel and the purchase of goods, not fees. This conclusion has been reported since the 1960s.

    In fact, income is the biggest determinant of whether a family chooses to travel in the first place. A study of 3,000 Texas residents found that those with incomes of more than $20,000 per year were 60 percent more likely than lower-income residents to participate in outdoor recreation away from home and 30 percent more likely to participate in outdoor recreation close to home (Lee, Scott, and Floyd 2001, 439).

    The costs of visiting Yellowstone National Park illustrate the importance of travel expenses. If a family of four traveled from Washington, D.C., my calculations show that it would spend between $770 and $1,360 on food, lodging, and transportation. Once the family got to Yellowstone, it would pay $20 to drive into the park for a two-day visit. If Yellowstone were completely funded by fees, I estimate that a $20- per-person fee, or $80 for a family of four, would cover operating costs. This $80 charge would be a small part of total expenses-less than half the price of a single day’s visit to Disneyland (currently $47 for adults, $37 for kids).

    Other factors, too, may affect low-income travel. A study of public parks in the Cleveland area found that low income reduced the use of city parks (Scott and Munson 1994). Since travel costs are a small factor and fees virtually nonexistent, other forces may inhibit outdoor recreation among the poor.

    When people live near public lands, and travel costs are low, recreation fees could affect low income people’s decisions to visit public lands. This brings us to the second question. What can be done if recreation fees are keeping poor people from public lands? Here are a few policy options:

    • Recreation vouchers, coupons, or rebates could be distributed to the poor through charitable groups or land agencies. These vouchers or passes might be linked to time donated as volunteers.
    • Occasional free days could improve access for the poor. Or a limited number of free admission tickets could be set aside each day, available on a first come-first served basis.
    • Some areas could be free of fees, with operating expenses covered from fees at other sites. While this is technically illegal under some fee statutes, it is probably occurring in practice on many state and federal public lands today.


    We should recognize, however, that recreation policy may not be the best avenue for addressing welfare concerns. Because poor people use the parks less, they might like to see the tax dollars spent elsewhere than on public lands.

    And using tax dollars for public lands is a regressive policy. Because affluent people engage in recreation more than poor people do, it benefits middle-class and wealthy citizens more than it does the poor. That may be why the poor generally support recreation fees. For example, low-income respondents in Oregon and Washington approved of the Northwest Forest Pass, which provides access to Forest Service lands for a fee (USDI and USDA 2003, 54).

    In sum, fairness is an important concern-but recreational fees may improve equity rather than make it worse. They shift the burden to those who spend more time in recreation-the middle-class and wealthy-and away from those who use the parks less.

    Lee, Jin-Hyung, David Scott, and Myron F. Floyd. 2001. Structural Inequalities in Outdoor Recreation Participation: A Multiple Hierarchy Stratification Perspective. Journal of Leisure Research 33(4): 427-49.
    More, Thomas, and Thomas Stevens. 2000. Do User Fees Exclude Low-income People from Resource-based Recreation? Journal of Leisure Research 32(3): 341-57.
    Reiling, Stephen D., Hsiang-Tai Cheng, and Cheryl Trott. 1992. Measuring the Discriminatory Impact Associated with Higher Recreational Fees. Leisure Sciences 14: 121-37.
    Reiling, Stephen D., et al. 1996. Potential Equity Effects of a New Day-use Fee. In Proceedings of the 1995 Northeastern Recreation Research Symposium. General Technical Report NE-218. Radnor, PA: USDA, Forest Service, Northeastern Forest Experiment Station, 27-31.
    Scott, David and Wayne Munson. 1994. Perceived Constraints to Park Usage among Individuals with Low Incomes. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration 12(4): 79-96.
    USDI and USDA. 2003. Recreational Fee Demonstration Program Progress Report to Congress Fiscal Year 2002. Washington, DC: National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Forest Service, March.

    J. Bishop Grewell, a PERC research associate, is author of the Policy Series paper, “Recreation Fees: Four Hard Questions,” forthcoming from PERC.

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