From fee to free 

State parks: use ’em while you can afford ’em

An early spring is upon us, which means Montanans will soon be headed to their favorite camping spots to spend time enjoying the abundant natural beauty of our great state with their friends and family. This year, however, when we access our state parks, Montana residents won’t be hit with the pesky entrance fees our government used to charge us just to walk on the land we already own.

The history of being charged by government agencies to access public lands is long and complex. But here in Montana, charging citizens fees to access our state parks didn’t happen until 1989, after the seemingly unrelated passage of I-104, a citizen’s initiative that was supposed to “freeze” property taxes at 1986 levels.

Those who were around in the ’80s will recall what happened when I-104 was first proposed. In a nutshell, every government entity from schools to local and state government went into a paroxysm of protest, predicting nothing less than the end of civilization as we know it. Their arguments generally held that without the ability to continually increase property taxes, the public entities that relied on that revenue stream would wither and die a slow and agonizing death.

Nonetheless, the citizens, facing the double-digit inflation of those times and living then, as now, with some of the nation’s lowest per capita incomes, voted for I-104 and it became “law.” I put quotes around “law” because the forces that opposed the tax freeze were hard at work figuring out ways around it well before the measure passed, and truth be told, it was gutted before it ever became a real law.

When the 1987 Legislature rolled into town, the bills were ready to literally overturn the vote of the citizens and nullify the effect of I-104. What happened is pretty simple: Government institutions quickly sought to enact measures that would allow them to levy “fees” for expenses that were formerly covered by property taxes. And oh what fun they had coming up with a million new fees for everything they could think of. The Democrats raised their usual cry of “government needs the money,” while the Republicans smugly nodded in agreement because they supported, and still support, so-called “user fees.”

Had this nefarious skirting of the vox populi been restricted to absolutely necessary expenditures, perhaps it would have been tolerable. But once the agencies saw how ready the Legislature was to ignore the will of the people, everyone piled on board and fees, as a way of generating revenue for government operations, went ballistic.

Seizing the moment, the Parks Division of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (DFWP) came in with its own bad idea—entrance fees for state parks. In 1989, a $2 access fee was broadly implemented and suddenly Montanans found themselves digging out the dough if they wanted to access their own state parks. Some towns, which had previously used their local state parks for community gatherings, flat-out revolted and simply boycotted the parks.

Following the path of all such institutions, the fees continued to go up and up. After all, reasoned the bureaucrats, since their “costs” continued to rise, the fees needed to “keep pace,” and it soon cost twice as much or more to get into state parks that were formerly free.

Some, however, fought back, pointing out that the so-called “costs” being used as a reason for higher park fees were more related to development and bureaucracy-building than to the necessary basic maintenance of the parks. For example, formerly unneeded toll booths were now being built and manned simply to collect the new fees.

In the early ’90s, the Legislature passed the Primitive Parks Act that delineated about a third of the state’s parks as “primarily natural and undeveloped” and required the agency to leave them that way. The legislation also prohibited charging Montana’s residents access fees to these parks. Other legislation specifically directed DFWP to give maintenance and restoration priority over development in its spending proclivities, stressing such things as sanitation, weed control and streambank stabilization at all parks and fishing access sites.

In the meantime, the battle to “Free the Parks” continued, with a number of bills being introduced to remove the access fees for Montana residents. Those bills, however, fell victim to savage lobbying by DFWP. The agency, of course, claimed disaster or worse would befall the state if we went back to the free access system that had worked just fine for most of the last century.

Finally, in 2003, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 336, which instituted a $4 voluntary fee on vehicle registrations, with the resulting revenue going to state parks in lieu of access fees for Montana residents. Under the new law, “state parks will no longer charge entrance fees to vehicles with Montana license plates or to walk-in visitors beginning January 1, 2004.” According to the fiscal note for the bill, about half the people who register vehicles in Montana are expected to opt out of the new fee. But that leaves the other half, which is estimated to generate $1 million in ’04 and $2 million in ’05. Considering that access fees generated $600,000 in ’02, it’s easy to see why DFWP favored the new law.

How it will all play out remains to be seen. DFWP officials have long argued that user fees were not a deterrent to public use. Diametrically contradicting their former logic, they are now predicting use of state parks to double since those same fees are gone. Also unknown is the response from non-resident park visitors, who will still be required to pay the entrance fees.

But for now, as former legislator and long-time “Free the Parks” advocate Bob Raney says: “We took the public land back for the public.” My advice is to get out there and enjoy your state parks—before the next Legislature changes its mind.

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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