The Future of Outdoor Recreation Funding

How will we meet the recreational demands of the 21st century?

The recreational demands of the 21st century are bringing new challenges for public land management. By many measures, recreation funding for federal agencies is stagnant or declining, despite increased attention on and demand for outdoor recreation. As public lands that provide outdoor recreation opportunities grow in importance, we must carefully examine how we fund and maintain those lands.


Inadequate recreation funding shows in poorly maintained trails, overflowing latrines at trailheads, and deteriorating infrastructure across the country. Taken together, national parks and forests need $17 billion in repairs that have been postponed due to a lack of funding.

Amid this context, there’s a clear way that recreationists could guarantee reliable funding: take a more direct role. Comparing the long-term trends of a few recreation-related funding streams is illustrative. State fish and wildlife agencies are largely funded by sources tied to users: hunting and fishing licenses and excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, fishing tackle, and related gear. These sources have proven to be remarkably stable over time and continue to grow even as participation in hunting and fishing has leveled off. By contrast, recreation funding entirely reliant on appropriations, such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, has a much less stable record.

Recreation funding either directly or indirectly tied to user demand is reliable and significant. Furthermore, linking funding to recreationists helps ensure that the funds promote responsible stewardship of the public lands that serve as some of our greatest recreation assets. Unlike many other public revenues, such funding cannot easily be siphoned away to the U.S. Treasury or diverted to other purposes. The programs also have a clear constituency, meaning that the accounts have proven resistant to being raided for other purposes.


PERC believes that expanding user-based models to fund recreation would go a long way toward helping maintain and improve our public lands. The unpredictability and slow decline of recreation funding is unsurprising given the uncertainty and partisanship inherent to the congressional appropriations process. Such funding ultimately depends on factors almost wholly unrelated to recreation, including the overall political climate or partisan priorities for government spending.


PERC is working to demonstrate the benefits of recreation funding that relies more on users than politics. Our ultimate goal is to improve the outlook for the future of recreation on national forests, waterways, wilderness areas, and all public lands where Americans recreate. 

PERC research explores funding realities facing federal agencies and how, through greater user engagement, we can ensure our outdoor recreation lands are properly cared for. In September 2018, PERC co-hosted an event with executives from the outdoor recreation industry, policymakers, and academics to discuss the challenges presented by recreational demands on public lands and mechanisms that could address funding shortfalls. The event began an ongoing conversation to search for market-oriented solutions to meet the growing popularity of recreation on public lands. 

In 2019, we published the report How We Pay to Play, a succinct look at the realities facing the future of outdoor recreation. In November 2019, PERC hosted a second recreation workshop that brought together academic experts to further address issues, including how to coordinate pricing across recreation sites and services, new low-cost ways of collecting fees, and the potential to expand user-pay mechanisms like those used by hunters and anglers. 

If the enthusiasm for enjoying public lands can be better channeled into user-funded mechanisms that support them, then outdoor recreationists of all stripes would have much to gain.

Research on This Topic

The Future of the Great American Outdoors: A new series of policy briefs explores how we can improve the funding for and maintenance of our public lands.

How We Pay to Play: A report on how we fund outdoor recreation on public lands in the 21st century.

Public Comment on Custer Gallatin National Forest Recreation Fee Increase: PERC weighs in on the U.S. Forest Service’s efforts to improve public land management through user fees.

Bringing the LWCF Into the 21st Century: Testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the future of engaging users in conservation funding.

Leave Park Operations—and Fee Revenues—to the Parks: An op-ed in The Hill on how empowering local land managers to spend fee revenues on greatest needs can help provide the resources to care for our public lands.

We Will Better Protect National Parks for Just Pennies More Per Visit: A piece in The Hill on how, for the price of an ice cream cone at Yellowstone’s Canyon Lodge, we will collectively be investing millions in the future of our beloved national parks.

Allow Popular National Parks to Charge for Attendance: An article in The New York Times: Room for Debate on how the national parks are often celebrated as America’s best idea, but we are loving the idea to death. Allowing parks to charge higher entrance fees to cover the full cost of operations and maintenance can help.