BLOG POSTS ARE PRELIMINARY MATERIALS CIRCULATED TO STIMULATE DISCUSSION AND CRITICAL COMMENT. THE VIEWS EXPRESSED ARE THOSE OF THE INDIVIDUAL AUTHORS. WHILE BLOG POSTS BENEFIT FROM ACTIVE UHERO DISCUSSION, THEY HAVE NOT UNDERGONE FORMAL ACADEMIC PEER REVIEW.
By Kimberly Burnett, James Mak and Christopher Wada
“establish a visitor impact fee program, to be administered by
the department of land and natural resources, as a license required
by visitors for usage of Hawaii’s public beaches, parks, trails, coastlines,
and environment. The purpose of the visitor impact fee program shall
be to provide sustained funding for the protection, restoration, and care
of Hawaii’s state-owned natural and outdoor recreational resources and
build the resilience of these resources to the impacts of increased visitor use.”
The key provisions of SB3129 S.D.2 are: (1) any visitor 15 years of age or older who visits a state park, beach, state-owned forest, hiking trail, or other state-owned natural area on state-owned land must pay an impact fee to obtain a license good for one year from the day of the license purchase (violators will be fined); (2) residents would be exempt from paying the impact fee; (3) once implemented, existing entrance fees at state parks will be rescinded; and (4) money collected will go into a special fund rather than the State’s general fund.
Exactly how the program will work is still unclear as the bill is silent on crucial features such as the size of the fee, discounts and exemptions, compatibility with the existing reservation system, transferability, and how it would be enforced. Importantly, possession of a license may not guarantee entry to a specific state park or natural area if current rules and visitor caps at existing state parks—such as those at Haena State Park—still apply. If a visitor paid for a pass but can’t get reservations (for car and person) to visit Haena State Park, should they be eligible for a refund? As a well-known idiom states, “The devil is in the details.” The Legislature should request DLNR to develop a plan with the requisite details.
State Parks and Natural Area Access Passes in Other States
Hawaii is actually a late-comer among states in the establishment of an annual state parks pass/license. (The National Park Service also offers annual passes.) State park passes vary greatly from state to state in their features.
Many states offer annual passes that provide pass-holders unlimited access to most state-owned parks while others offer passes on a park-by-park basis. (A few states—e.g., Illinois, Missouri, and Ohio—do not charge park entrance fees and hence offer no passes.) Pass programs may apply to individual visitors or, more commonly, to vehicles. Having an annual pass typically exempts the pass-holder from paying daily entrance fees (if any). Generally, states that offer an annual pass also offer a day pass. Both residents and out-of-state visitors must pay, although some states charge higher fees to nonresidents. For example, in Nebraska an annual vehicle pass costs $31 for Nebraska Licensed vehicles ($6 for a day pass) and $61 for non-Nebraska Licensed vehicles ($12 for a day pass). In Idaho residents pay $10 for an annual vehicle “passport” while out-of-state visitors have to pay $80; the passport expires concurrently with the vehicle registration and not one-year from the date of purchase. Montana residents who pay the $9 state parks fee with their annual vehicle registration do not have to pay a separate daily entrance fee to Montana state parks; those who don’t at vehicle registration time must pay the daily park entrance fee. Nonresidents can opt to obtain an annual Nonresident Entrance Pass at a cost of $50, or a 7-consecutive-day pass at $35. In states that offer passes, discounts are usually available to seniors and the disabled, and possibly a few others (e.g., active and retired military personnel and low-income households). Exemptions are also available to selected park users. There may be free days for everyone sprinkled throughout the year such as in Washington State—12 of them in 2022.
If SB3192 S.D. 2 becomes law, Hawaii will be the only state to require out-of-state visitors to purchase an annual park pass but not residents. (There is a minor exception. Since August 15, 2019, Iowa established a pilot program that requires visitors from out-of-state (but not residents) to purchase a $40 annual vehicle (including motorcycles) entrance pass to visit two of its parks that are heavily visited by out-of-state visitors (mostly from Missouri and Nebraska). A $5 day pass is also available.)
Current Entrance Fees at Hawaii State Parks
Hawaii already has a park entry fee system. Hawaii’s State Park System, administered by Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of State Parks, is composed of 50 parks on five major islands. Ten of them require non-residents to pay both an entrance fee ($5 per person) and a parking fee ($10 per non-commercial vehicle; commercial vehicles pay more); residents with proper IDs are admitted free. (There is no entrance fee for non-residents at Nuuanu Pali State Wayside but there is a non-commercial vehicle parking fee of $7.) If SB3192 S.D.2 becomes law, it would replace the existing park entrance fees with an annual pass. Thus, the issue is not whether tourists should pay, but how? Would it be an entrance fee per visit at individual State parks or a pass that permits unlimited visits to all State parks? An important unknown is which system can generate more revenue for DLNR.
Advantages and Disadvantages of an Annual Pass
There are both advantages and disadvantages for Hawaii to switch to an annual pass. The biggest advantage is that it saves visitors the hassle of having to pay entrance fees at individual parks each time they visit a park. However, an annual pass likely works better in other U.S. states than it would in Hawaii because mainland states pitch their sales primarily to residents who can use their passes year-round. On the mainland, even tourists from neighboring states may drive over multiple times during the year to visit a nearby park in another state. (For example, the Iowa Legislative Services Agency estimates that 108,000 nonresident vehicles that enter Lake Manawa State Park in Iowa each year come back 25 times per year.) Most of Hawaii’s visitors don’t visit Hawaii multiple times a year, thus few would have use for an annual pass. A short(er) duration pass, such as one for a week or a few months, might be more attractive to Hawaii’s visitors. A nicely designed pass might be purchased as a souvenir. And if aggressively marketed using the right message, buying a pass (license) might be viewed as a monetary contribution to a worthy cause.
The advantage of convenience with a pass system comes with a big disadvantage. Once a visitor purchases a pass, they can visit as many parks and as often as they want as long as the pass is valid. Since there is no additional cost to make another visit, there is no disincentive to cut back on park visits (except for his/her time and the cost of getting to and from the park). By contrast, the entrance fee under the current system has to be paid each time the visitor visits a park. This induces the visitor to figure out whether the value of another visit is worth the price of admission. The entry fee serves to ration park usage. The proposed annual pass is intended to generate revenue and not to curtail attendance at State parks. Indeed, it may undesirably encourage more park visits, adding to congestion.
An annual pass also removes the possibility of charging different entrance fees at different times of the year (peak versus non-peak travel season) and at different times of the day to encourage more efficient use of park resources and to generate more revenue. The case for charging different fees during peak and off-peak travel periods and by park location has been made before for the National Park Service. Although DLNR hasn’t contemplated a variable fee structure, it should give thought to crafting one in the future as demand for park visits continues to rise.
A State park pass may cause confusion among park users as they may not know which parks are State parks and which are county parks. Visitors who purchase a State pass may think that their pass entitles them to visit Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve only to find out too late that it does not, since Hanauma is owned by the City and requires a separate fee to enter. Or, a visitor purchases a State pass expecting to use it to visit Ala Moana Regional Park only to find out too late that the park is a county park and free to everyone. (Should they get refunds?)
An annual park pass for visitors only may be difficult to enforce. One reason why the Division of Parks doesn’t levy an entrance fee at all State parks is because it would be too costly to collect a fee at most State parks and natural areas. It can easily collect a fee from every visitor at the Diamond Head State Monument where entry can be tightly controlled but not at the open Makiki State Recreation Area. Policing a pass requirement at an open hiking trail is practically impossible. Attempts to vigorously enforce a pass requirement may be viewed as unfriendly. The State cannot afford to tarnish its carefully cultivated welcoming brand. Thus, a successful park pass program in Hawaii should be heavily promoted to maximize revenue generation but lightly enforced, relying substantially on the honor system.
Should Residents Also Pay?
The answer is “Yes.” Those who oppose charging residents to enter State parks and natural areas argue that residents already “contribute significantly” (see SB 3192 S.D.2) toward their upkeep through the taxes they pay to the State government. It is the same argument that survived a legal challenge to enable Honolulu County to impose a visitors-only admission fee at the City’s Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve in the 1990s. But the argument is weak. Visitors to Hawaii pay more tax revenues to the State government than what it costs the State to provide services to them. Consider that in 2019, tourism generated an estimated $2.07 billion in tax revenues to the State (including multiplier effects), or about 25% of total State tax collections; but visitors represented only 15.4% of Hawaii’s de facto (tourist + resident) population. Both residents and tourists contribute to park congestion and natural area degradation, and, hence, both should pay.
Passage of SB3129 S.D.2 is premature. Until DLNR develops a plan that provides more details on how the system will work in comparison with the current user fee system, it is impossible to conclude that the proposed impact fee system is preferable.
Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank Sumner La Croix and Steve Craven for helpful comments on earlier versions of this essay.