It’s ‘a-boat’ time to pass the LAKES Act
The Lake Access Keeping Economies Strong Act will fix a fee retention discrepancy.
If you’ve had the chance to visit North Dakota, you know there’s nothing quite like the beauty of our summers: longer, warmer days capped off by spectacular late-night sunsets. All winter, as we push our snowblowers down the driveway for the third time in a week, we look forward to boating on pontoons and hiking in the hills. By the time winter thaws, we’re ready to take advantage of the warm weather and unfrozen water. From kayaking to camping, we’re ready for summer.
I served as North Dakota’s tourism director. It was the most fun I’ve ever had in a job. Each year, over 21 million visitors come to our state to visit our national parks, lakes, and trails. In 2021, tourism contributed over $2.5 billion to our state’s economy, nearly $375 million of which was recreation related.
Recent data points to a post-pandemic boom of outdoor enthusiasm. The U.S. boasts an impressive collection of public lands and waters, from state parks to federally-operated areas.
Across the country, Americans have a plethora of outdoor opportunities through our National Parks, National Forests, and Bureau of Land Management managed areas. The list doesn’t stop there, though. The United States Army Corps of Engineers, in addition to maintaining dams and civil works projects, oversees more than 257,000 recreation facilities across 43 states. For example, the USACE’s construction of the Garrison Dam in North Dakota formed Lake Sakakawea, which is the largest lake in the state with a whopping 1,320 miles of shoreline. While it’s certainly a vital piece of the Missouri River Basin’s water infrastructure, the lake is also the epicenter for fishing, boating, camping, biking, and other outdoor activities. In total, the Corps manages 37 recreation areas at Lake Sakakawea alone.
Maintaining the quality of these areas takes time, resources, planning and funds. Yet, when it comes to the management of recreation on federal lands not all federal agencies play by the same rules. Unlike others, the USACE is unable to retain recreation fees at their sites. For areas managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service, 80% of fee revenue collected onsite is retained locally to support operations and maintenance of those facilities. For instance, when visitors pay their entrance fee into Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the superintendent is able to retain 80% for projects within the park rather than sending the money back to Washington. Despite offering similar recreational opportunities, fees generated at Lake Sakakawea or any other Corps-managed recreation area go straight to the U.S. Treasury rather than being reinvested on the ground. This discrepancy forces each of these 257,000 USACE recreation areas to wait for funding to come back from Washington before projects can commence. It makes no sense and leaves USACE managers without the flexibility they need to nimbly address maintenance and construction projects for public benefit.
For these reasons, I joined Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico in introducing the Lake Access Keeping Economies Strong (LAKES) Act which will fix the fee retention discrepancy. Camping fees generated at the East Totten Trail Campground at Lake Audubon should be reinvested there and not require approval from a D.C. bureaucrat. When the decision-making is kept closer to home, we empower the people who know the resources best and hear directly from those who use them.
Our bill also changes existing authority to allow private nonprofits to partner with the USACE to operate and maintain recreation facilities. Joint management authority already exists, but only for agreements with non-federal public entities like cities and counties. However, most of the interest in these agreements comes from private organizations who have a vested interest in facilitating recreational opportunities for their communities. This bill will foster new agreements to jointly manage and improve Corps recreation areas, boosting investments without additional cost to the taxpayer.
Ultimately, these fixes are not a silver bullet. It is still incumbent on the Corps to invest and manage the assets they own, but the LAKES Act gives them better tools to get the job done.
As winter comes to an end, families from North Dakota to New Mexico are looking forward to getting outside. Summers are great, but they’re even better when you can drive across a grated public road, launch your boat at the ramp, then pitch your tent on a level campsite at the end of night. If that sounds good to you, let’s get the LAKES Act passed.
Cramer, a Republican, is one of two senators representing North Dakota in Washington, D.C.