Trends in Attitudes Toward the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program on the National Forests: A Computer Content Analysis Approach...................


  • David N. Bengston
  • David P. Fan


Attitudes, computer content analysis, fees, national forests, news media, Recreation Fee Demonstration Program.


The Recreational Fee Demonstration Program (RFDP) was authorized by Congress in 1996 as a three-year pilot program and was subsequently extended through September 30, 2001. This program allows the USDA Forest Service and three other federal agencies to experiment with new or increased fees at up to 100 recreation sites per agency. The RFDP has sparked a public debate about the merits and demerits of charging fees for recreation on public lands.This study used the patented InfoTrend computer content analysis method to analyze the debate about RFDP fees on national forests expressed in a large electronic database of news media stories. The media have been found to both shape and reflect public opinion for a wide range of social issues. Analysis of large numbers of news stories using the InfoTrend method is a way to quickly and efficiently take the pulse of the public on a variety of social issues and indirectly measure public attitudes and beliefs. This method has the advantages over surveys, focus groups and interviews of being easily and rapidly updated, extending back in time several years to establish time trends and hence monitor changing attitudes and beliefs over time, and being expandable to include additional issues or dimensions. The main disadvantages of this method are that it may not be possible to analyze an issue with the same depth as with focus groups and interviews, and it provides an indirect measure of public opinion, which should be corroborated with direct measures.Over the period January 1, 1996 through September 30, 1999, favorable beliefs about RFDP fees expressed in our database of news media stories outnumbered unfavorable expressions by a factor of about 2 to 1, comparable to the findings of surveys and interviews. The share of favorable attitudes toward RFDP fees decreased over time due to an increase of expressions of unfavorable attitudes for the four southern California forests and the national forests of Oregon and Washington. In the rest of the country, however, there was no change in the share of favorable attitudes over time.The nature of the public debate about RFDP fees was found to differ substantially between those who hold a favorable view of fees and those who oppose them. Arguments and beliefs in support of the fees have been overwhelmingly utilitarian and pragmatic. In contrast, arguments and beliefs held by those opposing fees have tended to be focused on issues of rights, fairness, and wilderness values. Much of the support for RFDP fees was found to be conditional: Many people are willing to pay the fees so long as the revenue collected is used locally to fund needed improvements in recreation areas and facilities.





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