Private developers are making millions of dollars using federal land for everything from ski slopes to golf courses but paying the government little in fees, according to a congressional study.
The problem is leasing and contracting arrangements that often call for private companies to pay only a few pennies to the government for every dollar earned, said Sen. Bill Cohen of Maine."The U.S. government, landlord to some of the world's most beautiful scenery, has a blind spot when it comes to . . . ensuring a fair return on some of its most valuable assets," Cohen said.
The report cited cases in which operators of some of the country's premier ski resorts use federal land but pay the government little in fees; where hotel operators at national parks charge as much as $250 a night for a room, $6.75 of which goes to the government; and where operators of golf courses use federal land but pay little or nothing to the Treasury.
The study was prepared by Cohen's staff on the Governmental Affairs oversight and government management subcommittee. He is the panel's ranking Republican.
Congress is moving close to approving legislation that would reform contracting for concessionaires at national parks to allow the Interior Department to get higher fees. That issue has been widely publicized with reports that the National Park Service gets less than 3 cents for every $1 generated in revenue by park vendors.
But Cohen said the problem is much broader, with the federal government getting shortchanged on the use of thousands of acres leased by the Forest Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and various agencies of the Interior Department.
Last year, businesses generated more than $2.3 billion in sales for goods and services at facilities on federal property but paid the government only $57 million, or 2.5 percent, the study said. By comparison, state governments received on average about 12 percent return from businesses that used state land.
The report cited premier ski resorts such as those at Aspen, Vail and Steamboat in Colorado, Sun Valley in Idaho, and Sugarbush in Vermont as using federal forest land but paying little in fees to the federal government.
While the 75 largest ski resorts that use federal land reported gross revenues of $724 million in 1991, they paid the government only $13.3 million, or 1.8 percent. Some ski operators paid as little as one cent for every dollar in revenue.
"At Snowbird in Utah, the government receives only 66 cents on a $38 lift ticket," Cohen said.
Golf course operators have done pretty well on federal land as well, the report found.
In Scottsdale, Ariz., the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation gave the city a 75-year lease on a tract of federal land, and the city sublet the property to a developer who built a championship golf course and equestrian center.
Over a three-year period, the facility generated $24 million in revenue, and the city of Scottsdale received $1.5 million. But the federal government, which spent $300,000 to help build the facilities, will receive nothing for 75 years, according to subcommittee investigators.
In another example, vacationers pay up to $250 a night for a room at a luxury hotel at Grand Canyon National Park, but the federal government gets only $6.75 of that in franchise fees.
The report said that the Forest Service last year received $36.1 million in fees from nearly $1.48 billion in gross revenue reported by businesses using national forests. The National Park Service collected $17.6 million in fees based on $667 million in concessionaire gross revenue.
Fees collected by other agencies were: Army Corps of Engineers, $2.3 million in fees from nearly $119 million in revenue; the Bureau of Land Management, $900,000 from $39.2 million in revenue; the Bureau of Reclamation, $300,000 from $10.3 million in revenue; and the Fish and Wildlife Service, $100,000 on $2.3 million in revenue.