Public land access fees pass through Congress
An Ohio congressman with no public lands in his district pushed a measure through Congress to implement permanent access fees for recreation on all land managed by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation.
Ralph Regula (R-OH), the original architect of the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program (Fee Demo), succeeded in attaching his bill as a rider to the Omnibus Appropriations Bill recently enacted in the lame duck session of Congress. The bill was never passed by the house and was never introduced, given a hearing, or voted upon in the Senate. Omnibus bills are considered "must pass" legislation because of the potential for a government shutdown. Some members of Congress use riders attached to them as a way of getting funding for pet projects that some quarters refer to as "pork."
Regula's bill, HR 3283, allows the federal land management agencies to charge access fees for recreational use of public lands by the general public. The bill has been highly controversial and is opposed by hundreds of organizations, state legislatures, county governments and many individual Americans.
HR 3283 passed the House Committee on Resources in September under strong pressure from Regula, who is expected to become the next chairman of the powerful house appropriations committee. His bill is a big change in the way public lands are funded and stands in contrast to what some feel is a more moderate competing bill passed by the Senate. There, Senator Craig Thomas (R-WY) sponsored S.1107 that would let the National Park Service retain their entrance fees for local use but would allow access fees to expire in the other agencies. Thomas's bill passed the Senate in May by unanimous consent but never had a hearing in the House.
Early in last week's lame duck session, Regula's attempts to attach his rider were strongly rejected by the chairmen of all four pertinent Senate committees. Senator Thomas of the National Parks Subcommittee, Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) at Energy and Natural Resources, Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) of the Public Lands Subcommittee, and Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT), Chair of the Interior Appropriations Committee, all westerners, succeeded in forcing Regula to remove his rider on Tuesday.
By Thursday, however, Regula had reneged on the agreement with the other officials. He went over the heads of the Senate's public lands chairmen and struck a deal with Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Regula reportedly agreed to give Stevens funding for a road in a remote community in Alaska in exchange for allowing Regula's bill to be reattached.
That left the four Senators who had negotiated the original deal angry and disappointed millions of fee opponents who expected that such a seismic shift in policy would receive public hearings and not be done behind closed doors.
"This was a victory of pork over principle," said Robert Funkhouser, President of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, which has worked to oppose the Fee Demo program. "Ralph Regula is responsible for the first tax increase of the Bush administration. He and Senator Stevens have sold out America's heritage of public lands for the price of a road."
The Regula bill will go into effect when Fee Demo expires at the beginning of fiscal year 2005 unless the new congress acts to derail it. Its key provisions include permanent recreation fee authority for all National Forests and BLM land as well as all land managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the National Park Service. Failure to pay the fees will be a criminal offense punishable by up to $5,000 and/or 6 months in jail. Opponents say drivers, owners, and occupants of vehicles not displaying either a daily or annual pass could be presumed guilty of failure to pay and could all be charged, without obligation by the government to prove their guilt. The measure encourages agencies to contract with private companies and other non-governmental entities to manage public lands and to enforce fee collection. The bill also establishes a national, interagency annual pass called the America the Beautiful Pass, expected to cost $85-$100 initially.
These provisions have encountered strong opposition in the west and in rural areas nationwide. The program is considered a double tax by many and puts the burden of funding the management agencies on the backs of rural Americans. Regula's bill failed to attract a single western sponsor but was co-sponsored by seven eastern congressmen.
"This is an abuse of position by Congressman Regula" according to Funkhouser. "Changing public land policy in the middle of the night via a rider is despicable. Once again the Congressman has proven to be hostile to rural and western values and will stop at nothing to push his agenda".
The provisions in HR 3283 are intended to replace the former Fee Demo program, also created by Regula. Fee Demo was similarly passed as a rider on an Omnibus Appropriations bill in 1996. Originally a two-year demonstration, it was repeatedly extended and is now in its eighth year. Fee Demo has sparked protests nationwide and widespread non-compliance. Hundreds of organized groups, as well as four state legislatures and dozens of counties, opposed the program.