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RAT killer: Baucus introduces bill to cap federal recreation fees

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For Montanans who regularly spend time in the splendor of our national forests and parks—which includes almost all of us—a new bill introduced by Sen. Max Baucus this week comes as an early Christmas present. The bill would, once and for all, kill what has come to be known as the RAT, or Recreation Access Tax, that enabled federal land management agencies to start charging the general public for access to our own national lands and waters.

Regular readers of this column will recall the evolution of the issue from its inception, when Rep. Richard Pombo, a Republican from California, slipped a rider on a budget bill about a decade ago without a single public hearing or debate.

Initially, the rider authorized a pilot program, known as Fee Demo, which allowed the Forest Service, BLM, and other federal land management agencies to experiment with charging the public every time they set foot on public lands—or even parked along roads that ran through federal lands. While in some states, such as Montana, the feds realized they’d be facing an outright revolution if they tried to broadly charge fees for accessing public lands, in other states, such as Colorado, California, and Oregon, the federal agencies slapped on very aggressive fees and mounted even more aggressive fee collection efforts.

It didn’t take long for a backlash to build against the program, but to the thinking of Pombo and his Republican cohorts, including Montana’s Denny Rehberg, charging citizens to walk through the forest, plains or seashore seemed just fine. While Congress was busy mismanaging the nation’s fiscal affairs, federal land management agencies were routinely shorted on appropriations. And since Pombo and his posse figured defense spending, corporate tax cuts, and energy subsidies were more important than taking care of public lands, they simply decided to squeeze funds out of the recreating public with the understanding that most of the money raised by the fees would be kept for the use of the local fee-charging agency instead of heading for the federal treasury.

Opposition to the fee program continued to grow, however, joined by some federal agencies that complained the fee collection—and subsequent court costs when people refused to pay—ate up whatever revenue they generated, causing even greater shortfalls for their existing budgets.

The major hope for opponents to the Fee Demo program was that it was set to expire unless it was re-authorized. Unfortunately, Pombo managed to slap another rider on another “must pass” budget bill and reauthorized the program under the new title of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, or FLREA. Those who despised the fees quickly re-named it the RAT, and killing the RAT became a high-level political struggle.

Like so many policies that came out of the Bush administration (Clean Skies, Healthy Forests, and the Patriot Act), the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act did exactly the opposite of what its title said. Rather than enhance recreation, it diminished recreational opportunities for anyone who was unwilling or unable to pay to play on federal lands and brought the ugly spector of fines, tickets, and Gestapo-like enforcement to what should be the pleasant experience of visiting Nature in all her wonder. Moreover, it created a confusing mess of individual federal agencies issuing specific passes for specific areas that were, to the public’s dismay, not valid for other nearby federal lands.

Despite the many problems with the program, however, one should never underestimate the determination of federal agencies to take advantage of an opportunity to generate revenue from the public, whom they supposedly serve. As fee enforcement grew more draconian and the number of sites charging fees exploded, the opponents gained support and became better organized.

Leading that opposition were two groups: The Western Slope No-Fee Coalition out of Colorado, headed by Robert Funkhouser, and Scott Silver of Oregon’s Wild Wilderness. This August, as noted in an earlier column, Rob’s great struggle against the access fees ended when he died of a heart attack. But the battle was already well underway and many state legislatures, including Montana and Idaho, overwhelmingly passed resolutions urging the repeal of the fee program. Meanwhile, Rep. Pombo was unceremoniously turned out of office by his own constituents, in no small part because of the fee nightmare he spawned.

Although Funkhouser didn’t live to see it, Baucus, an outspoken opponent of the access fees, has now teamed up with his Republican counterpart from Idaho, Sen. Mike Crapo, to advance legislation to repeal the fee program and cap the ever-increasing entrance fees to national parks. “Americans already pay to use their public lands on April 15,” Baucus said. “We shouldn’t be taxed twice to go fishing, hiking, or camping on our public lands. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

To be sure, there will be much gnashing of teeth from the federal land managers and their allies in Congress. Taking back the fee authority from the federal agencies will be no easy task. Baucus, however, has vowed to “fight like the dickens to get this bill passed.”

The good news is that he already has the strong support of Sen. Jon Tester, who knows the issue and the sentiment of Montanans since he co-sponsored Montana’s no-fee resolution as president of the state Senate in 2005. Even Denny Rehberg seems to realize that his initial support for the program was a mistake.

While we should be rightfully proud that our senators are leading the battle, it is vital that Montanans make their support heard in the coming months. When all is said and done, however, maybe the best part about Max’s early Christmas present is that it keeps on giving to—not taking from—future generations of Montanans who enjoy our incredible public lands.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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