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Kill The Rat (editorial):
In late 2004 the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) replaced the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program launched in 1996. Both programs emerged from legislation attached to appropriation bills by Ralph Regula (R-Ohio). FLREA (sometimes just REA), more commonly known as the Recreation Access Tax (RAT), requires fees of those recreating on Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service or Bureau of Reclamation administered public property.
A trend in our society is replacement of tax funding with fees. Government has used the strategy to flatten corporate and private income taxes, transferring the cost of government to working class Americans.
RAT advocates act as if public land recreation has created intense burdens on public land agencies, requiring substantial new sources of funding. America just can’t afford to provide these free services anymore, they insist.
The greatest period of public land recreation related construction in US history occurred in and shortly after the great depression. It is silly to argue we can’t maintain trails or facilities today that the country could afford to build generations ago, when America was at her poorest. In 1960, for instance, the Gross Domestic Product of the USA was 543.3 billion dollars. In 2016 it was 18,624.48 billion dollars (over 30% of the world economy).
The amount of land the affected agencies administer in the lower forty-eight states has changed very little. What has changed is the population. In the eleven western states, for example, the population in 1950 was under 20 million people. By the middle of 2017 population of the same area was over 75 million. Even without a per capita increase in economic growth the federal land management agencies would be swimming in money, all else being equal.
Federal land agencies lack funding because political leaders would rather provide tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy, and direct subsidies to powerful special interests. The data suggests poor Americans have gotten poorer, the middle class has eroded and wealthy Americans have gotten much wealthier. This isn’t a result of manifest destiny, the will of God or the nature of things, it is largely a result of government policy.
Policy makers would rather transfer wealth to the wealthy than fund public land.
In the middle of the Clinton era, the Forest Service projected dramatic increases in outdoor recreation. The projections dovetailed with the assertions of some environmental groups, who argued “pay to play” would demonstrate the desirability of adopting policies favoring recreation over resource extraction. Interestingly, under the Bush administration the same US Forest Service claimed only about a quarter of projected recreation actually occurred.
Advocates of the Fee Demonstration program insisted fees would supplement appropriations and the result would be substantial improvement in outdoor recreation services, leading to more support for fees. In reality, federal land funding decreased and recreation infrastructure degraded. What the recreation fee demonstration program demonstrated is the correctness of critics of recreation fees. In essence, fees are a form of double taxation. Recreation fees do not exist to improve our public lands; they exist to serve political agendas harmful to natural resource conservation and responsible use.
Recreation fees for public land use are a radical idea, at odds with generations of American policy.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund Act states, “No admission fees of any kind shall be charged or imposed for entrance into any other federally owned areas which are operated and maintained by a Federal agency and used for outdoor recreation purposes.”
The National Park Service Organic Act - “...and no natural curiosities, wonders, or objects of interest shall be leased, rented, or granted to anyone on such terms as to interfere with free access to them by the public.”
The Forest Service Organic Act - “Nor shall anything herein prohibit any person from entering upon such forest reservations for all proper and lawful purposes.”
For a century the American people and their elected representatives supported free public access to public land. Both Democrats and Republicans conspired to change that agenda in 1996.
Greed is the root cause of recreation fee policy, but ideology plays a supporting role.
The primary architect and supporter of federal land recreation fees is the American Recreation Coalition (ARC). For the most part, ARC is composed of companies and organizations wishing to make a profit off your recreation. If you merely skim over ARC public statements and comments they sound interested in promoting health and vigor. If you take the time to read their congressional testimony and other documents, it becomes clear they want to commercialize and motorize public lands.
Public conservation lands shouldn’t be turned into playgrounds any more than they should be turned into tree farms, or cow pastures.
ARC members don’t want to buy private land, pay taxes and cover the downside costs of “playground” development. Like the timber industry (has argued you should pay them to “log public forests back to health”), or the livestock industry (believes they should pay about ten percent as much to graze on National Forest or BLM land as on private land), or the mining industry (has argued public minerals should be free for the taking), the ARC wants to exploit your public resources for modest fee or free. Along the way, they wish to collect income directly from you and have your tax dollars pay for infrastructure, administration and environmental amelioration. What a deal!
ARC members have plenty of motivation to cash in on the possibility of converting your conservation lands to partnership playgrounds, what is the motive for other parties interested in user fees?
I have mentioned environmentalists wishing to demonstrate the value of public land recreation through adoption of pay to play programs.
In some respects, the recreation fee story is another sorry chapter in the sad sack saga of the Sagebrush Rebellion.
Shake open the bag of most vocal congressional fee proponents and out tumble warmed over rebels who hate public land.
In addition to a host of private think tanks, you can scratch the surface of university economics departments and find advocates supporting free market solutions to about any public land question. I know and like some of these folks personally - they are just wrong.
Economists write and speak as though we all desire a world of rational asset allocation. They insist life is about incentives rather than laws, regulations and policies.
Unfortunately, assets are not rationally allocated. Some people are rich and some poor. Historically in North America, people born with less intelligence make less money. People of color make less money. People from broken homes make less money. Some people don't work very hard and make a lot of money. Some people work like dogs and make little money.
Why should race, intelligence, family history or salary level determine whether a person can engage in the timeless sport of standing in a stream and casting a fishing rod, or hike along a mountain trail, or take the family to a lovely natural setting for a picnic on a perfect fall day?
Some recreationists take the fee argument at face value. The places they like to recreate are running down, litter is increasing and law enforcement may be needed. They feel a modest fee can help ameliorate the problems and nobody should complain about a few bucks to participate in wonderful public land recreation opportunities. This brand of recreation fee supporter tends to be well educated, middle class, from larger towns or cities, and white. Fee critics have suggested "elites” are interested in keeping riffraff away from “their” recreation, or even that motivations are racist. To me, they mostly seem ill informed. Despite the downward trend in quality and quantity of public land recreation resources, they insist on a broader use of fees. Somehow it doesn't occur to fee advocates that we could fund public lands the same way we did fifty years ago, when the GDP was a fraction of what it is now.
Some fee advocates emphasize they are opposed to fees for land use but insist the public should pay for amenities and service from which they benefit directly. Maybe it is just me, I cannot grasp the logic. If a private landowner elects to build a picnic table on her land with her own money, it seems perfectly reasonable for her to charge me a fee to use the picnic table. However, if a federal agency we pay with tax dollars to administer our public land elects to build a picnic table with public tax dollars, why do I have to pay to use the public picnic table?
Trying to disaggregate services and land doesn’t work because it is impossible. From the perspective of a federal land manager all land use requires management. There is no such thing as public use without public service. Most of the managers I know would argue it requires less agency service to administer an area with formal picnic and campsites than a similar area with active dispersed recreation. Trying to separate public land services from the public lands themselves is a dishonest ruse.
Let’s look at the efficacy, fairness and cost of a longstanding fee based recreation program:
In the US and Canada, fish and wildlife are largely the responsibility of states and provinces. Some, most or nearly all funding for the agencies responsible for administering fish and wildlife programs derive from fees - hunting and fishing licenses and tags.
Where I live, in Washington State, if you want to fish and hunt it will cost most residents about $100, depending on options. If you don’t live in Washington the fees are about ten times greater. Here in the West, much big game hunting occurs on federal land. Habitat is predominantly administered by federal officials. Why does the state get over a grand from some Joe from New Mexico who wants to hunt a moose once in life?
There isn’t any logical reason for non-residents to pay ten times more than residents. While residents may contribute state or provincial tax dollars toward conservation, they routinely contribute more tax dollars toward exploitation and resource degradation, something non-residents do not do. The most insidious justifications center around locals going without the advantages of resource exploitation, as if people have a God given right to destroy fish and wildlife in the pursuit of profit.
Several years ago I worked with a state attempting to broaden the funding base, especially to include non-consumptive wildlife “users.” After extensive research and coordination with other states, the Wildlife Commission adopted a single new bird hunting tag. And so it goes. States have spent decades attempting to develop a fee system to capture non-consumptive wildlife user dollars, with little success.
When I lived in Idaho, a talented Fish and Wildlife Department Director elected to leave the state for the equivalent position in a smaller, less exciting (from a fish and wildlife perspective) state. Why would anyone leave the Idaho F&W top post for the same position in a state like that, I asked myself. Idaho DFW relied almost solely on hunting and fishing fees for revenue while the Department of the other state received generous tax support from the legislature. This is all one needs to know about fees versus tax funding.
What is an appropriate fee?
I was in a sports shop in Spokane one afternoon. A man asked a clerk about hunting licenses. The clerk explained the options and tried to convey the economic advantages of buying packages of licenses and tags. The clerk thought the customer didn’t understand. Finally, the fellow turned his face down, his cheeks reddened and he said, “I understand, I just can’t afford them.” He turned and quickly walked out of the shop.
Roughly, half of American households have no month-to-month savings. Many Americans are spiraling deeper into debt every month.
It doesn’t matter whether fees are minor or major, millions of Americans can’t afford to pay them.
For thousands of generations, all around the world, people were hunters and gatherers. Now in America, the richest country in the history of the world, people who spend their lives putting in an honest days work for an honest days wage don’t feel they can afford to go fishing or hunting anymore.
The future of fees?
In British Columbia, one has to purchase additional licenses to fish some of the blue ribbon fisheries. There was little criticism until a local committee in southeast BC, claiming concern about actual or potential crowding on some rivers and streams, asked provincial authorities to add the streams to the Classified Waters category. A non-resident alien fishing license costs $20 per day in BC (or an annual license for $85), but to fish these waterways, if you are a non-resident, costs you the license plus an additional $20/day Classified Waters license. The objective is to reduce “crowding” by pricing working class Albertans and Americans off the rivers. The program makes the experience less affordable for working class people and less crowded for locals and the wealthy, and therefore more attractive to locals and the wealthy - who stay at resorts and hire guides. There isn’t anything non-locals can do about it since they don’t vote in British Columbia, except boycott the province.
If a wonderful, progressive, freedom loving place like British Columbia can do this so can Idaho, or Washington, or any other political unit, anywhere. If it can be done for fish, why not river running, why not the best Wilderness areas, trails, parks, lakes, picnic areas? Why not libraries? If $20/day doesn’t weed out the undesirables, how about $100/day? The latest federal lands fee effort is to increase National Park fees to reduce crowding. To find a proper fee the government looked at fee costs at private tourist facilities, such as Disneyland. It is obvious where this is going. The most popular public landscapes will become tourist facilities for the upper classes of the world.
Some fee advocates argue fees facilitate public/private partnerships, and that's a good thing.
We don’t have to fantasize about the benefits of public/private partnerships, or efficacy of private investment on public land. We have been there and done that. BLM lands have involved such partnerships and private investment since before the agency existed.
Assume you are a BLM Resource Area Manager. You administer a chunk of public landscape you think costs too much to manage, needs environmental amelioration and presents opportunities for wildlife enhancement. You believe federal laws direct you to make changes. The planning documents for the District encourage your course of action. Changing the way cattle graze is the normal path to improved management on public rangeland. You write a new grazing plan for the affected landscape. The rancher appeals the decision. The attorney for the rancher drags out a plethora of old documents showing decades of rancher, private investment on the public range, and numerous documented handshake and verbal deals between the last seven local BLM managers and the past couple of generations of ranchers. It’s all over in about an hour. The Administrative Law Judge pounds the gavel and finds in favor of the rancher.
Public land should be managed by public, professional land managers; with public money, for public purposes.
Federal land management agencies should manage federal land. State land managers should manage state land, and you and I should manage our own land. Aren’t these concepts simple enough? Expecting states or private parties to provide responsible management of federal resources is like expecting Ford to provide warranty work for folks who bought a Chevy.
The federal government is over 20 trillion dollars in debt. Isn’t it time for a little prudence? What federal land management agencies need is a modest, cost effective agenda focused on resource conservation, rather than intensive timber, livestock, mineral and playground development. Agencies went down the intensive timber and livestock management road for decades and the most intensive aspects of the programs were the amounts of red ink and environmental abuse.
The bulk of public land timber sales have been below cost. Rranchers using BLM and Forest Service range pay a fraction of what is paid for private range. The 1872 mining law, - granting miners a right to explore for and exploit public land minerals without compensation to the public - is still the law of the land. Why would any reasonable person believe the fee program for public land recreation would be any better than the fee programs for commercial users of public lands?
Here is a quote from a BLM past "final recreation fee guidelines", “Business plans are to be used in determining appropriateness and level of fees. Plans will include, but not limited to, the level and types of development; cost and safety of collection; type, season, duration, and intensity of visitor use; compliance and enforcement capability; convenience; partnerships; stakeholder input; impacts to underserved communities and local businesses; private sector alternatives and a communication and marketing plan.”
Natural resource managers don’t want to be law enforcement officers or business executives. They have college degrees in disciplines like range management, ecology, biology, forestry, soil science. Most of them aspire to a career of applying sound, science based conservation to a chunk of public landscape. Bean-counting, DC desk jockeys hatch half-baked ideas about resource agencies needing to function like businesses, partnerships, treating people like customers instead of citizens, intensive management and reinventing government constantly.
Fees have unanticipated consequences.
The state of Washington, mired in a period of inadequate funding during the Great Recession, adopted a state land use fee called the Discover Pass. Annual cost is $30. The daily use fee is $10. The state has spent substantial sums of money to attract tourists. The Discover Pass is an invitation for them to stay home and locals to do their outdoor recreating in Idaho. The legislation almost immediately underwent one major legislative change. Now that the Great Recession is behind us is the Discover Pass gone too? Of course not. Has management improved? No, even agencies responsible for managing Washington state public resources don't understand the law. For instance, every year the hunting and fishing regulations pamphlets state that a Discover pass is required to hunt or fish on state lands. But that is not true. The discover pass doesn't have anything to do with hunting or fishing. It is an access pass for vehicles. Fish and Wildlife Department lands and boat launches have had signs saying a Discover pass is required for access and use, but that isn't true either. The F&W Dept. issues land and facility passes with all hunting and fishing licenses. The confused public buys Discover passes to launch boats at Fish and Wildlife launches. Private contractors managing federal campgrounds and boat launches have a confused public hanging Discover passes from their rear view mirrors instead of the federal "Access" Pass required by the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA). Several private contractors managing federal camping and other recreation areas don't accept the "Access" pass, instead requiring the public to obtain private pass unique to the contractor. The public is supposed to be able to understand all of these separate pass requirements, even when the management agencies can't.
Some years ago, I was spending a few days where I had worked for a land management agency years before. I took some time to visit management I was involved in. I was surprised to find substantial amounts of household garbage, old appliances and furniture on small backroads. This hadn't been the case when I worked in the area. I had lunch at a cafe and asked the owner about the garbage. She said landfills used to be paid for with taxes but to save money the county decided to hire contractors to operate the facilities and allow them to charge for dumping. So, of course, rural folks dumped for free on public land, or for free on private ranch and timber land.
Most of us believe the vast array of fish and wildlife are fellow travelers on planet earth, or at least public assets. We agree they are worthy of conservation and stewardship. We can tax ourselves in support of the broad spectrum of life we share the planet with or remain mired in a system that is inequitable and inadequate - a system that places unreasonable burdens on agencies and narrow user groups, who have largely been working class and less than wealthy.
During a progressive century before 1980, citizens banded together and improved their lot. Communities developed municipal fire and police departments, water districts, and parks. Federal land management agencies were established. Trails, picnic areas and campgrounds were an excuse to put men to work who needed work. Americans believed in fresh air and thought exposure to nature and God’s creations was good for character development. Small rural towns were happy to have forest and park visitors spend time and money in their communities. Land managers were pleased to have some developments to facilitate management. A campground, for instance, might be constructed between a river and a road, vastly reducing wildfire potential.
We didn’t get public libraries, schools, highways, police and fire departments or parks by funding them with fees, we paid for them with taxes and the nation is better for it. If you are concerned about taxes, tell your elected representatives you want to stop subsidizing the private sector. Federal subsidies weaken and stifle the private sector. Government today has it backward. Politicians try to convince us government should slash public services and spend our tax dollars supporting private business (economic development). Politicians feed us this slop because politics is about money, and the money comes from corporations and wealthy individuals demanding subsidies and tax breaks from government.
When I was a boy, there was a movement to charge people to use public lavatories. Stalls had coin boxes mounted on them. You had to pay to obtain access to the toilet. Proponents argued it cost money to have and maintain public facilities and users should help cover those costs. Pay toilets spread like wildfire, for a while.
The “Greatest Generation,” expressing better sense, philosophical foundation and moral fiber than their children and grandchildren, used all means necessary to flush the pay to poop movement.
Free public restrooms are broadly available today because your parents and grandparents refused to tolerate abusive public policy. Now it is our turn.
There is a simple response to those who insist fancy public recreation amenities cost money and the people who use them should pay for them: We don’t need no stinking fancy recreation amenities. Public lands are conservation lands, not playgrounds. Basic facilities are appropriate. Federal agents don’t have to pander to every fad the recreation industry decides to pedal.
The “pay to play” movement is evil.
It is the work of a totalitarian, run amok government willing to abuse its own citizens. For thousands of generations, all over the world, humans roamed land for literal, spiritual and aesthetic sustenance. Public lands are your birthright. You have a fundamental right (not privilege) to use them for lawful purposes. By fundamental, I mean like the right to vote, the right to worship as you choose, a free press, free speech, to assemble peacefully, or eat pizza. This isn’t a philosophical gray area people can agree to disagree on. The right to use your public lands is a basic civil right.
Here are a few RAT killing suggestions:
Organized resistance is necessary. Donate to and get on the list for information from the West Slope No Fee Coalition (www.westernslopenofee.org) P.O. Box 135, Durango, CO 81302. Avoid paying fees and send these folks a few bucks instead.
Fees exist because special interests have asked politicians for them and the public has failed to resist. This is also why the federal government is 20 trillion dollars in debt and why pork barrel spending is extreme. Only you can stop this abuse.
Avoid paying fees!
Avoid places that charge user fees. Refuse to cooperate with the user fee program, to the extent possible. I note some places advertise that user fees do not apply in their area - support businesses in those areas. A few state legislatures (Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Idaho and New Hampshire) have adopted resolutions opposing user fees, recreate in those states.
Encourage your state legislature to adopt a resolution opposing the RAT.
Any time you have an opportunity to complain about user fees to government agents, take the opportunity. Complaints flow uphill.
Contact Chambers of Commerce where user fees apply, make a point of letting them know you decided not to come to their area because you were avoiding paying recreation user fees.
Try to get organizations you are associated with to adopt resolutions opposing the RAT. Drop your membership in organizations if they support RAT and similar fees.
Increasingly, politics is about money. It is important to avoid businesses, organizations, publications and governments supporting fees. Avoid supporting the businesses and organizations that belong to ARC. The recreation industry has generally been supportive of fees. If you are considering buying outdoor recreation equipment, avoid businesses that support fees. If in doubt, don’t buy.
I am not enthusiastic about either of the major political parties (the Clinton administration supported recreation fees). The Bush administration had an abysmal record on natural resource issues. The Obama administration did some good things and was a mixed bag on others. So far, the Trump administration has been terrible.
Don Tryon, January 2012, revised January 2018.