America’s great outdoors: It’s under attack

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dammrich1In a time of budget cuts and sequestration, our industry must advocate for the recreational pursuits that keep us in business

America’s Great Outdoors — its waters, national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and more — cover one-third of our nation and attract a billion recreation visits annually. And 7,000 state parks prompt another 720 million visits annually.

They are important gateways to waters where Americans fish and boat and swim, and more. Together, they inspire many boat purchases and rentals. That’s why our industry needs to be concerned, informed and involved when tight budgets threaten key boating funding programs, recreation site operating hours — even closures.

Should we be concerned? Yes. Funding for federal recreation programs is domestic discretionary spending, and that is the part of the budget most impacted by deficit cuts. Spending on defense and “entitlements” (Social Security, health care) crowds out spending on parks. Crowding will increase further when interest rates on the federal debt escalate to more traditional levels. And this will pose real risks for boaters who rely on public access to our waters.

In 2013, grants to the states under the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Safety Account were cut by 5 percent, and cuts will continue as long as sequestration applies. While the money — excise paid by boaters and anglers — is technically still in the account, there is real jeopardy that these sequestered funds could be swept out in a grand budget agreement.

Transportation Enhancement funds, which have been used to boost access to public waters in conjunction with bridge construction, have been cut. Delayed openings at federal recreation sites, limited hours at locks important to recreational boating, reduced hiring of “seasonals” — typically assigned to serve visitors at places like boat ramps — are all concerns.

This news is bad for three reasons: First, our customers hear this news and may decide to substitute a trip to a theme park or overseas for time in the Great Outdoors this year — perhaps also forgoing a boat purchase or rental; second, the cutbacks could reduce the quality of fun on the water by creating longer lines at boat ramps and less help on the water; and third, these cuts stunt growth for our industry because they stunt water access.

But these challenges have a silver lining:

• Recreation at the federal level needs a new financial model. Ninety percent and more of the budgets of agencies like the National Park Service relies on general tax receipts. Entrance fees, campground fees and other market-driven funding total only about $1 per visitor. Federal agencies utilize little of the millions currently paid in fees and taxes by boaters.

In general, federal agencies have avoided fees as a sustainable revenue source despite the lessons of other thriving leisure destinations, including theme parks, which cost $75 or more per person per day. Americans will pay for great experiences — especially if the alternative is closed parks and poor access to public waters. Congress and agency heads understand this now.

• Most federal recreation sites need “make-overs.” Federal lands boast “world-class” ski areas — areas including Vail and Aspen, Snowbird and Mammoth. For boating and fishing and camping, the story is different. Camping in national parks is inexpensive, offering incredible access to scenic places. Yet national park campgrounds hosted more than 4 million overnight stays in RVs in 1987, but dropped to just 2.1 million in 2012. Why? Most campsites don’t suit today’s RVers, who want pull-through sites, dump stations, utility hookups and sites that accommodate slide-outs. Very few federal campgrounds offer cabins, yurts or rentable park models.

dammrich2Similarly, many marinas operating on federal lands are outdated. They rarely offer dry storage and rentals, or visitor services, and rarely have access to other services modern boaters are seeking, like food, ice and fuel. Why? Federal agencies too often either prohibit private investments or cancel operating permits for campgrounds and marinas when a business is sold — completely unlike the treatment of ski areas. “Make-over plans” using private investment are now high priority for national forests and national parks.

• MAP 21 — the nation’s current federal surface transportation program — continued the transfer of boater gas taxes to the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Safety Account through Sept. 30, 2014, but must be reauthorized — and a $30 billion-per-annum deficit for bridge and road program funding puts all non-highway spending of federal fuel taxes at risk.

We have champions in the Congress, though, who will defend the user-pay basis for steering boater fuel taxes to boating programs. And the real potential for a major federal fuel tax increase to meet national highway program needs, starting in 2015, could be a huge opportunity — a potential 50 percent to 80 percent annual increase in boating fuel taxes available to enhance boating opportunities — hundreds of millions of dollars each year!

• Access to public waters near population centers has long been a problem. Polluted waters have tempered urban demand. But Americans are now benefiting from billions of dollars invested in surface water cleanups, and rivers like the Harlem, the Anacostia in D.C. and many more are now important new opportunities for our industry. We need to aggressively pursue enhanced access to these gateways to water fun — and a new federal National Blueways System can help achieve this goal.

• America’s Great Outdoors has lost market share to video games and other less healthy activities. Until recently, top federal managers were unconcerned. This is changing. The National Park Service will soon launch a major outreach and promotion campaign tied to its 2016 centennial and has enlisted Discover Boating and Take Me Fishing to help design the effort!

• Agencies — and the Congress — have learned the price of inflexible cuts imposed by sequestration. Sequestration cut spending 5 percent at every park, forest and program, with almost no ability to be selective. That inflexibility is unlikely to be repeated as we look at long-term spending limits.

• There are creative ways to provide great park visitor experiences at less cost to American taxpayers. A recent report by Resources for the Future documented actions by state parks, which overall depend much more on fees paid by visitors. Ending the construction of large visitor centers that are expensive to operate and reliance on technology to provide visitor information instead is becoming the model, and that means equipping marinas and other recreation sites with good Wi-Fi and cellphone service.

• Federal agencies are becoming much more sensitive to the marketplace and recreationist expectations. For years, the Park Service has charged the same entrance fee during high and low seasons. Fees are for a carload — $25 or less — and are for seven days.

The growindammrich3g international market gets subsidized visits just as American taxpayers do. All Americans over the age of 62 get free lifetime access to federal recreation sites for a one-time payment of $10. But fee reform is coming. Fewer public roads rely on human toll collectors; electronic fee collection saves money. Federal fee collection costs often run 20-plus percent and limit the extension of fees to units with lower use or multiple access points.

• There is a growing understanding that federal recreation planning has needlessly constrained boating. We are seeing bipartisan support for a balanced management plan for Biscayne National Park after public furor arose when plans to end most fishing and boating in the park were announced.

Similarly, the Park Service was forced to change plans for the closure of a Sandy-damaged marina in New York City. And there is growing bipartisan interest in new initiatives that could aid boating — like a new Penny for Parks and the Great Outdoors program. One cent of any new federal fuel tax dedicated to public lands could make travels to and through parks, public lands and public waters easier and safer.

• The economics of the boating industry — and recreation overall — are better understood today than ever before. The president and all 50 governors proclaimed June as Great Outdoors Month and touted recreation’s $650 billion impact on our economy. Brand USA is touting parks and the Great Outdoors as reasons to visit America — and it is working. Boating has new credibility as a tourism tool — from the Dry Tortugas to Lake Powell to the San Juan Islands.

One job is created for every 35 international visitors we attract — and about one in five visitors already visits one or more national parks. The president established a goal of 100 million international visitors by 2021, up from 60 million now. Last year, international visitation grew nearly 8 percent — ahead of this goal.

Stakes are high. The Great Outdoors and easy access to public waters have helped the boating industry for decades. Fixing current problems and using doors now open to us can continue this for decades to come.

I encourage everyone with a stake in our industry to attend the American Boating Congress May 6-7, 2014, in Washington, D.C., to help ensure our industry’s voice is heard on Capitol Hill. Until then, to stay up to date on the issues we address on your behalf, you can sign up for the Washington Wave newsletter by visiting www.nmma.org. n

Thom Dammrich is president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the principal voice for the industry on public policy issues. The organization carries out strong boating advocacy programs at both the state and federal levels from offices in Washington, D.C.

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue.

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