Padilla Announces Bill to Improve Equity and Transparency in Reservation Systems for Public Lands

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) announced legislation to expand access to nature for Americans, improve the visitor reservation process and experience on federal lands, including national parks, and enhance fee transparency. The Review and Evaluation of Strategies for Equal Reservations for Visitor Experiences (RESERVE) Federal Land Act received a hearing today in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (ENR).

Many iconic recreational areas and national parks in California, from Yosemite to Lake Tahoe, suffer from overcrowding. The number of visitors to America’s public lands has significantly increased in recent years: the National Park Service reported 325.5 million recreation visits across the country in 2023, an increase of 13 million visits from 2022. This increase in visitation can lead to overcrowding, vehicle congestion, and limited parking while also degrading our natural resources. Federal land management agencies have tested new visitor management methods such as online reservation systems; however, the potential for these systems to widen socioeconomic gaps in accessing nature remains severely understudied. Initial data shows that users of the reservation systems tend to be wealthier, more highly educated, and more likely to be white.

“As more and more Americans seek out nature and outdoor recreation, it’s more important than ever to guarantee equal access to outdoor spaces,” said Senator Padilla. “Reservation systems are a critical tool for conserving our public lands and ensuring visitors have the space to explore the outdoors, but we must ensure they are designed so they can serve as a gateway to the outdoors, rather than a barrier.”

The bill would direct the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to study reservation systems across federal lands, including campsites, hiking permits, climbing passes, and other outdoor recreation activities. The report would be due in 18 months and would cover reservation system design, system user demographics, and data availability and accessibility.

The study would also investigate the fee structure and transparency of, the government’s centralized travel planning platform and reservation system for 14 federal agencies. In some cases, visitors pay fees to enter lotteries or use a reservation; however, the website often does not make clear that many of the profits from these fees support private site managers rather than conservation efforts. Many users also report frustration that they do not know their odds of success when entering a lottery for a reservation system. Specifically, the study would examine how revenue from fees for reservation systems is split between and spent by federal land units, federal agencies, and third-party contractors, as well as how this information can be better communicated to users. It would also evaluate ways to improve the dissemination of information with respect to users’ odds of being approved for a reservation.

Senator Padilla is a strong advocate for closing the nature gap and ensuring equitable access to nature. Last year, Padilla introduced the bipartisan, bicameral Outdoors for All Act to expand outdoor recreational opportunities in urban and low-income communities across the nation. He also questioned witnesses from the National Park Service and Forest Service on improving equity in reservation systems during Senate ENR Committee hearings last month. Earlier this year, Padilla announced bicameral legislation and urged President Biden to create the Chuckwalla National Monument, which would significantly improve outdoor recreational opportunities in the Coachella Valley.

Full text of the bill is available here.


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