Ochenski: Under the radar 

Department of Fish, Wildlife & Fees

While our attention is distracted by the issues and candidates of the upcoming election, the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) is moving aggressively forward with actions that will affect us all, regardless of how we vote. If FWP gets its way, as it usually does, the fees this state agency charges us to access and use our own state parks, waterways, and fishing access sites are going up anywhere from 25 to 200 percent, with no end in sight. Would Montanans ever approve such a radical increase on ourselves—or vote for legislators who did? Of course not. Which is exactly why DFWP is hurrying to slip in the new fees under the radar of public accountability.

For years, the fiscal matters of the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks have received almost no scrutiny from the Legislature. This may seem odd, since FWP is, after all, a government agency. But here’s the catch: Most of FWP’s funding comes from federal excise taxes on sporting goods ranging from boats to bullets, license fees to hunt or fish, and so-called “user fees” charged to access or camp on public recreational lands. Because the agency receives virtually no “general fund” money, the Legislature simply hasn’t paid much attention to its budget.

Those who have been paying attention, however, have passed legislation to control both development and subsequent costs at our state-owned recreational sites. The Legislature, throughout the last decade, has enacted laws to keep about a third of our state parks in a “natural, primarily undeveloped” state, to require public notice and involvement in development plans, and to allow Montanans to access the so-called “Primitive Parks” and fishing access sites for free. Also enacted during that decade were laws that specifically directed the agency to make maintenance a priority over development at all parks and fishing access sites. After all, what most people want when they go to parks or fishing access sites are clean toilets, no trash, and control of stream bank erosion and noxious weeds.

The logic for these laws is simple and straightforward. The more the agency develops any given site, the more it costs to maintain.

While there is little to vandalize or maintain at a “natural” site, the same cannot be said of the high-end projects—such as the quarter-million dollar shower houses and million dollar developments—being built by FWP. The more it costs to repair vandalism and maintain the sites, the more the agency is going to charge the public to recreate. The more it costs, the fewer Montanans are going to be able to afford to recreate on land that they, as the public, already own.

This trend is well-documented. At the end of his tenure as head of the Parks Division of FWP, out-going division chief Arnold Olsen bragged of having “doubled the Parks budget.” In the weird world of government bureaucracies, where the search for funding seems to take priority over just about everything else, such a dubious “achievement” is seen as good. In the real world of everyday Montanans, however, we know that the doubling of the agency’s budget came from one place—our back pockets. We are paying more, so the agency can get bigger, so it can develop more of our public recreational sites and then charge us more to use them because they are “developed.”

If FWP’s twisted logic seems to ignore the Legislature’s mandate to hold down expenses and development, that’s because it does. Even worse, because those laws are limiting the agency’s ability to develop and charge fees at even more sites, FWP has announced it will seek the repeal of those laws in the next legislative session. That’s right—a government agency is using your license and camping dollars to lobby the Legislature to overturn the laws passed by the elected representatives of the people so the agency can make all the development and fee decisions on its own.

Which brings us to where we are today. Because the agency knows it would likely lose the battle for radical fee increases in a court of public opinion or before an elected body of decisionmakers, it convinced the Legislature to allow it to implement and raise fees as it wished with nothing more than the approval of the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission. Only one problem: Commission members are appointed, not elected, and therefore are accountable to no one but Gov. Martz, who appointed them. One hand shakes the other as yet another Martz policy fleeces the ordinary citizens of Montana—only this time it’s for recreating on our own public lands, accessing our own rivers and lakes, camping with our families and friends.

If this seems like the action of an agency out of control, that’s because it is. Much like the Forest Service’s controversial “Fee Demo” program on federal lands, our own Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has seen the “pot of gold” at the end of the recreation rainbow. While virtually every other agency of state government is preparing for looming budget cuts, this rogue agency is gleefully rubbing its hands together over its nearly unstoppable plan to raise fees, add dozens of new employees, and develop to its heart’s content into the foreseeable future—and to do it all on the backs of Montanans seeking to spend time with their friends and families in the magnificent natural world of our own home state.

But don’t take my word for it, go to www.fwp.state.mt.us and check out the proposed “Biennial Fee Rule” for yourself. There you will find all your favorite sites and how much more it’s going to cost you to enter, camp, or recreate starting in December. December? Yep—this pre-emptive strike by a rogue agency, coming in low under the public radar, will be squeezing Montanans for more bucks well before the elected representatives of the citizens even begin their legislative session. 

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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