Ochenski: Fee market economics 

The federal fee demo scam is all maxed out

Thirty years ago, during the early battles to introduce a sales tax in Montana, the slogan used by opponents to successfully defeat the proposal was: “Pay more, what for?” It was a good question then, and it’s a good question now as the Bush administration tries to make controversial forest access fees permanent. Luckily for Montanans, Sen. Max Baucus continues to lead the opposition to this public rip-off scam.

A little history is in order to put the issue in perspective. Despite the fact that our national forests and public lands are the envy of the world, Congress has long found it easy to ignore maintenance funding. What Congress did fund, thanks to plenty of corporate donations and lobbyist pressure, was the budget to help the Forest Service sell our forests to timber companies.

The massive clearcuts across Montana and much of the West bear mute witness to the extent to which this policy was implemented. As the prime lowland timber was removed, however, the Forest Service was forced to offer trees in more inaccessible areas to meet “harvest quotas.” Unfortunately, it cost more and more to build roads into higher and steeper areas and soon enough, the entire proposition was a money loser and American taxpayers were subsidizing the destruction of our own national forests.

But even with massive public subsidies, the amount of timber that could be cut continued to decline. After all, the good, cheap trees were already hacked down and, despite the rhetoric about trees being “renewable resources,” it takes time to re-grow forests.

Prodded by their corporate masters, the Republican dominated Congress continued to fund the timber road-building budget, but took out their frustrations at declining timber production by slashing other federal land and water management needs.

The time was ripe for the free-market ideology worshipped by the Republicans to be put into play on public lands. If the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or National Park Service wanted more money, why, then let them get it the Republican way: by ripping off the little guys. If the agencies wanted more money, reasoned these dubious public policy makers, they should “run government like a business” and start charging people to access the public lands.

Many say this radical concept amounts to double taxation, since citizens already pay federal taxes to maintain national assets like public lands. But hey, so what? The headstrong Republican Congress jammed through legislation to implement fees on a “trial basis” by authorizing “fee demonstration” sites on public lands around the country. To rationalize this rip-off, they agreed to allow public land managers to keep a portion of the fees to be used locally.

In theory, allowing the agencies to keep some of the revenue they generated would lead to greater stewardship of the resources they were “selling.” But in practice, the agencies tended to put fiscal resources not into maintenance, but into toll-booth activities that generated revenue—like visitor centers, paved “camp sites” with water, sewer, and electricity hookups, and Disney-like amusements.

There are other fundamental problems with the theory as well. Chief among them is that giving government agencies the legal right to levy fees to raise revenue, and then spend it wherever they wish, circumvents congressional authority to appropriate money for government operations. There is a very good reason why Congress is supposed to oversee the bureaucracy and make the funding decisions: Every few years, we elect our representatives and senators and they are accountable to us for their actions. But no one elects government bureaucrats and they are accountable only to their agencies, not the public at large. In other words, under the fee demo plan, government would get to run itself—on our money.

For some reason, the same Republican-dominated Congress that approved the program believed the general public would be glad to pay these fees. But that has not been the case. Instead, the public has fought the fees, ignored the required payments, and challenged the resulting penalties and fines in court. Before they knew it, the cost of fee enforcement and the legal challenges began to eat up a huge chunk of the new revenues. Plus, the public was flat out mad about paying every time they park near or walk in their own forests.

Much to his credit, Sen. Max Baucus perceived that implementing such a system in Montana would likely result in a revolt among the general populace. As a result, although Colorado, Oregon, and California are wrestling with the program, we have almost no fee demo sites in this state. Thanks to Max, we can still drive up a national forest road, park the car, and go fishing, berry picking, hike into our favorite mountain lake, or just sit quietly and watch birds without having to buy a pass or return from our adventure to find a ticket with a $50 fine under our wipers.

The days of Republican domination of Congress are gone—at least for now. But the Bush administration still wants to make the fee program permanent. Given that the Republican House will do anything Bush wants, Max Baucus and his compatriots in the Senate are our only hope to end this unwarranted fleecing of ordinary citizens.

In Colorado, the city of Durango passed a resolution opposing the fees. In the Colorado Senate race, the Democratic challenger made his opposition to the highly unpopular fees a cornerstone of his campaign. Almost immediately, the Republican incumbent announced his newfound opposition to the program as well. Both men have pledged to increase funding for maintenance of public lands—but not through fees.

We know where Max stands—and that’s for the people and against the fees. Common citizens in Montana and throughout the nation are thankful for Max’s leadership role in the fight to finally end this ill-conceived program. What we don’t know, but should, is where Max’s Republican challenger stands on charging citizens to access publicly owned lands. 

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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