Funding for national forests, parks, and seashores shouldn't be a popularity contest. But just as Sierra Club skeptics had warned, the federal government's experiment in collecting recreation fees from visitors to public lands has resulted in a handful of locales grabbing the lion's share of the money. According to a study by the General Accounting Office, 20 percent of the sites collected 70 percent of the fee revenue. And since 80 percent of the fee dollars are supposed to remain in the place they were collected, the report suggests that the windfall wealth may turn into unnecessary infrastructure. "Sites that collect most of the revenue use it to meet their local needs," the report says, "even if these needs are minor in comparison with those at other locations where funding is not as plentiful."
The hazards of running parks like businesses are amply demonstrated in Tennessee, which closed 15 of its 54 state parks last year. In explaining how he was going to choose which parks to shut down, the state's Department of Environment and Conservation commissioner Milton Marks said, "We are not going to close those parks that create revenue. We are only going to close those where people come out to look at nature."