No one knows just when the West decided it had had enough of being run from Washington, D.C. Perhaps it was the continuous pigeonholing by national political pundits who see life in only two colors, red and blue. Or perhaps it was the broken promises of a president who ran on states’ rights and freedom and went on to crush both mercilessly with top-down dictates and government secrecy. Somewhere along the line the color codes broke down, left and right joined together, and the West told Washington to take a hike.
The indications that Montanans have had it with federal mandates became more than a little evident last week. Of all the things the Montana Legislature can do, one of the most common is passing resolutions to express our support or opposition to federal policies. Although the feds routinely ignore the opinions of a state like Montana, with fewer than a million people scattered across the fourth largest landmass in the union, perhaps they ought to think twice when it comes to charging Montanans to access and use the national lands and waters that surround us.
House Joint Resolution 13, sponsored by Rep. Paul Clark, D-Trout Creek, demands the repeal of the misnamed Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, which in the more popular vernacular is known as the Recreation Access Tax, or RAT. The resolution doesn’t have the power of law, and it surely won’t stop the federal government, but at last week’s hearing, such a stunning political cross-section of Montanans showed up to support it in front of the Senate Natural Resources Committee that maybe, just maybe, it might garner a little attention from the federal powers that be.
Who could have predicted that the backpackers of the Montana Wilderness Association would be on the same side as the four-wheelers and dirt bikers of the Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association—or that the Sierra Club would find an ally in Montanans for Multiple Use? How is it possible that these traditional opponents were also joined by the Montana Wood Products Association, the Montana State Parks Foundation, Citizens for Balanced Use, the Montana Logging Association and the governor’s office?
The answer is simple. None of us would ever consent to pay a fee every time we wanted to enter our own home or have a barbecue in our own back yard. Yet, under the provisions of the RAT, the feds can and will start charging us every time we camp at the little BLM river pullout we’ve used for decades, or launch our canoe from a federal site, or have a family picnic in the national forest. These lands are our heritage as American citizens, and if the feds think they can charge us to use something we already own, the 49–1 vote by which the measure cleared the Senate should inform them that they are terribly mistaken.
Nor are recreation fees the only thing driving Westerners to take a stand against the federal government these days. How about the USA PATRIOT Act, for instance? Another resolution, Senate Joint Resolution 19, sponsored by Sen. Jim Elliot, D-Trout Creek, explicitly requests Montana’s attorney general to “permanently dispose” of any intelligence information held by the state “to which there is not attached a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.” In other words, tell the feds their covert mining of personal information on Montana citizens will not be tolerated here. Nor will racial profiling, the “use of state resources for the enforcement of federal immigration matters,” or the collection of information about “the political, religious, or social views, associations, or activities of any individual group, association, organization, corporation, business, or partnership” unless the information “directly relates to an investigation of criminal activities.”
SJR 19 zipped out of the Senate on a 40–10 vote. This week’s hearing in the House saw more than three dozen proponents from across the political spectrum. Rep. Brady Wiseman, D-Bozeman, told one proponent he had received more mail and phone calls on this resolution than on any other legislation. Should the measure clear the House, it will carry the clear message to our congressional delegation that Montanans want the invasion of our personal privacy and constraint on our civil liberties to expire.
And then there is Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s request to bring Montana’s National Guard troops and helicopters home from Iraq to fight what is widely considered to be a potentially enormous wildfire threat this summer. The generals in D.C. are alarmed that a governor would make such a request, and have already tried to arrange a meeting to mumble soothing reassurances to Schweitzer. But when Schweitzer told them he wanted to go visit our troops, they told him he needed State Department clearance to do so. Now get that straight: Schweitzer is the commander in chief of the Montana National Guard, but he is being told he needs clearance from some D.C. bureaucrat to go talk with his own troops, let alone bring them home.
Montana is not alone in this battle. Governors, legislatures and local governments across the West are rising to oppose the draconian measures emanating from a federal government that seems to have forgotten we are a union of states—not a dictatorship.
Montana’s constitution, for instance, simply does not allow the kind of secrecy in government operations that are now being taken for granted in D.C. How ironic that this is “Sunshine Week,” in which we are supposed to be celebrating “transparency” and “open government.” But in truth, the darkness falls and closed meetings proliferate like never before as a cowed populace and press are humbled by the federal fist.
Hal Harper, the governor’s chief policy adviser, said it straight in the House hearing on the anti-fee resolution: “If you want to incite revolution in this state,” he told the committee, “start charging hunters and anglers and campers a fee to access their own public lands.”
Harper is right—but the Western revolution has already begun.
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 email@example.com.