There’s a RAT in the Appropriations Bill

By Jeff Milchen
Published December 22, 2004

Editor’s Note: This article was first written for Writers on the Range, the wire service of High County News. This edit varies slightly from the original.

Would you still call your town library “public” if a private corporation was allowed to manage the books your taxes paid for, then charged you a fee to borrow them? Thanks to a provision slipped into the latest federal spending bill, we may soon ask that question about our public lands.

Just hours before the vote on a $388 billion, 3000-plus page spending bill, Rep. Ralph Regula (R-OH) and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) inserted a rider — meaning no debate or vote is possible on the item — authorizing five federal agencies to create and extend recreation access fees on most public lands for the next decade.

The sleazy tactic avoided an unwinnable vote on a wildly unpopular program. Now access fees can be collected on 600 million acres of our public land — an area six times the size of Montana .

These fees are more than a nuisance tax; they undermine the very idea of these lands as public. By expanding opportunities for private profit, while requiring land managers to provide human-made “improvements” or service to justify charging a fee, the law could accelerate rapidly the commercialization of our legacy.

Until 1996, charging access fees was expressly prohibited on most federal land, with the exception of National Parks and developed boating or campground facilities. But during the 1990s, Congress slashed funding for federal lands upkeep, creating a budget “crisis” rife with opportunity for groups like the American Recreation Coalition — a consortium of advocacy groups and corporations which profit from operating campgrounds, concessions and motorized recreation equipment. The ARC lobbied intensively for “public-private partnerships” and touted user fees as a funding source.

After Rep. Regula first failed to pass the recreation tax in the House in 1996, he inserted a rider into the appropriations bill, where fees became law with virtually no public awareness. Begun as a two-year test at a limited number of sites, the program widely known as “Fee Demo” was extended via the rider tactic several more times. The latest rider would remove most limits and make visiting your public land without paying a required fee a crime, punishable by up to six months in prison or a $5,000 fine.

Critics like Scott Silver of Wild Wilderness say it’s time to name the fees honestly as Recreation Access Taxes, or RATs.

Until now, the tax’s uncertain future limited exploitation of public lands, but with the decade-long guarantee of RATs, the recreation industry will push aggressively to exploit new profit opportunities. Already, federal documents raise the possibility of new marinas, hotels, and even theme parks. Public lands managers now dependent on user fees will be put in a bind: the fees, touted as a supplement to existing spending, merely enable further cuts in appropriated funds.

The Forest Service reported $39 million in 2003 Fee Demo revenue and claim 80 percent of funds go to improve conditions where they’re collected. Those claims are contradicted by the General Accounting Office, which documented the new bureaucracy for collection, enforcement and commissions as consuming about half of all revenue.

Paying $5 to hike may not burden everyone, but the fees are demonstrably exclusive. Almost one quarter of families with incomes under $30,000 said they were deterred from using fee areas, according to the Forest Service’s own survey.

The greater threat, however, is removing the limits to commercialism that have kept much public land an oasis for human enjoyment and protected habitat for thousands of species. According to the latest available data, taxpayers fork over almost half a billion dollars annually to subsidize Forest Service logging operations. The recreation industry recognizes similar opportunities to profit from taxpayers’ subsidization. That library analogy becomes more vivid when you consider that hundreds of Forest Service campgrounds, built with our taxes, already are corporate-run, complete with a monopoly on reservations by Ticketmaster.

Thankfully, the RAT rider by Regula and Stevens angered even many fellow Republicans, including many powerful western Senators, and a bill to reverse the RAT is likely in early 2005.

Citizens who care for our shared treasure should speak out now and insist on reversing Fee Demo once Congress reconvenes. For if the access taxes continue for 10 years, our opportunity may be gone forever. By then, many people will have forgotten that our public lands are a birthright to enjoy and protect, not a commodity.

The writer directs

For a more detailed article on the problems with recreation access taxes, see Is This Land Our Land?

Where are the corporatizers heading? See this 2005 report from the Houston Chronicle.

As bad as the RAT bill was, the Forest Service has gone beyond the law to further commercialize our public lands, as detailed by Western Slope No Fee Coalition.

For additional background information and updates, please see the websites of Wild Wilderness or Keep the Sespe Wild.