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Ochenski: Kill the RAT

Double-taxation on public lands

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Like a diseased rodent in a shipping container, a very nasty little RAT—the acronym for the new Recreation Access Tax—was slipped into the federal Omnibus Spending Bill as a rider last weekend and the consequences are not pretty, especially for those of us living in the West.

As the Denver Post put it bluntly in a Sunday editorial: “Get ready to pay through the nose to use your national forests and other public lands. A last-minute plan to charge recreation fees on some federal lands for the next decade was tucked into the 3,000-page appropriations bill that passed Congress last Saturday. The proposal never received even one public hearing and was rammed into law by a congressman who has no public lands in his district. It was lawmaking at its worst.”

The father of the RAT is Rep. Ralph Regula, a Republican from Ohio, who was more than happy to slap on a charge to use federal public lands, although he has no federal lands in his congressional district. Rep. Regula abused his position as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee to slap on the RAT rider, despite a clear record of overwhelming dissent from Western senators and congressmen.

For those who have been following the issue of charging the public to access our own public lands, the new Recreational Access Tax is the latest incarnation of the former Fee Demo Program that Rep. Regula tucked on as a rider to another appropriations bill about a decade ago. That program was intended to allow certain federal land managers to charge the public new fees and then keep about 80 percent of the revenue generated for local use.

Ostensibly, the goal was to address the mounting backlog of federal lands maintenance problems, such as those in Yellowstone National Park where raw sewage was discharged into park waters after massive ruptures of old lines. Suffice it to say that Yellowstone was not alone in its maintenance woes.

That Congress should fund the maintenance of our national lands through the taxes we already pay is obvious, and many saw the additional fees as double taxation, which they are. When federal agencies abused their new fee authority, a strong anti-fee movement arose at the grassroots level as citizens throughout the nation suddenly found themselves faced with fees to even park on public lands. Then the federal agencies began to charge fines for those who refused to pay and the opposition went thermonuclear.

The initial Fee Demo Program was supposed to be just that—a temporary “demonstration” program to see how it worked in practice. But the problems began to arise almost immediately across the spectrum of national public lands. Contrary to its initial intent, a General Accounting Office study found the Fee Demo Program was costing appropriated money to pay formerly nonexistent expenses for enforcement, ticketing and prosecution of those who didn’t pay.

It quickly became obvious that the program was hated by the public, but Congress continued to dodge its responsibilities to fund the maintenance of national lands from the federal treasury and extended the “demonstration” program for nearly a decade. This year, however, those extensions finally ran out and the program was set to expire.

Nowhere was the resistance to being forced to pay to walk upon our own national lands more fierce than in the West—which makes sense, given the large proportion of federal lands in most Western states. To their credit, the Congressional delegations from the Western states generally heard the outcry from their constituents and sought to finally end the Fee Demo Program. The Senate unanimously passed a bill that would have allowed the National Park Service to charge fees and keep the revenues for their use, but would have ended the authority for other federal agencies to do so on national public lands.

To make a long story short, the RAT’s father, Rep. Regula, saw the handwriting on the wall and realized Congress would never pass legislation to authorize general fees for using federal lands. Rumor has it that he cut a deal with Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), in which Stevens received pork-barrel funds for building a remote road in Alaska in return for allowing Regula to attach the Recreational Access Tax to the Omnibus Spending Bill in the conference committee without a hearing, debate or full vote on the issue.

To make matters worse, Regula’s RAT rider also contains outrageous penalties of $5,000 and six months in jail, thus making criminals out of those who can not or do not pay the fees. As the Denver Post noted: “By comparison, damaging a fragile wetland with an all-terrain vehicle nets just a $75 fine.”

Regula’s RAT tactic left Western senators such as Montana’s Conrad Burns, Idaho’s Larry Craig and Wyoming’s Craig Thomas steaming, especially since the Omnibus Bill is must-pass legislation that cannot be stopped by filibuster. Sen. Thomas has already promised to introduce legislation to overturn the RAT next session, but in the meantime, citizens have one more chance to kill the RAT before it goes it goes into effect.

The House of Representatives must vote on the Omnibus Bill before it can be sent to President Bush for his signature. That vote is scheduled to occur Monday, Dec. 6. All citizens who don’t want to end up “paying through the nose” to access public lands they already own should let Congress and the White House know their feelings. For those seeking more information, a compendium of news articles on the RAT can be found at www.wildwilderness.org/docs/feedemo.htm.

Thanks to Rep. Regula’s disgusting abuse of the legislative process, the chance of killing the RAT rider is admittedly slim at this point, but we must take it. The Recreational Access Tax cuts across party lines, affects both motorized and nonmotorized recreation, and in the end, will impact all Montanans by imposing regressive economic barriers to our enjoyment of the public lands that surround us.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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