If you are fortunate enough, there is one spot on Earth you can go to that makes your heart sing. For my wife and me, that place is the Aravaipa Wilderness in southeastern Arizona, where we once spent an idyllic season as wilderness rangers for the Bureau of Land Management.
A few years later, we brought some friends there to let them experience the abundant birds, perennial stream and gorgeous multi-colored sandstone cliffs. As we approached the entrance to the canyon, we noticed a sign on the boundary fence that we did not remember having seen previously. After all, this was a wilderness canyon, with no designated trail, no facilities and no markers.
The sign stated something to the effect of "Fee Demonstration Program, $5 per day per person." That was our introduction to the wonderful new world of fees for practically everything on federal land.
It is amazing to me how few people in this neck of the woods are aware of the situation, but that is about to change -- big time. What was once a small program, confined to a few sites, is about to go nationwide due to a new federal law called the Recreation Enhancement Act, dubbed by its opponents more appropriately as the Recreation Access Tax (RAT). This federal legislation authorizes a wide range of recreation fees by the Forest Service, BLM, U.S. Fish & amp; Wildlife and Bureau of Reclamation. RAT also provides for collaborations among government and "non-governmental entities." Translated, this means management of public lands by recreational corporations, like the Marriott Hotel chains, the International Association for Amusement Parks & amp; Attractions and, of course, the Walt Disney Company, all ardent supporters of this legislation. The fees will go into effect at the end of fiscal 2005.
These fees, and the areas where they will be charged, have been expanded to an even greater extent by the Forest Service in their Implementation Guidelines. They have included fees for "high-impact areas" as well as for people just "passing through" -- by car, boat, on foot or on horseback.
You say that you just will not pay the fees? You should be aware that RAT specifies non-payment is a Class A or Class B Misdemeanor, carrying penalties of up to (a) $100,000 fine and a year in jail or (b) $5,000 fine and 6 months in jail.
How did Congress ever pass such an atrocious bill? Well, it didn't, exactly. It was literally a "midnight rider," tacked on to an omnibus appropriations bill last November at the last minute. It therefore became law without any vote, debate or even public hearings.
As you can imagine, this legislation is provoking outrage wherever its provisions have become known. The Montana, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska legislatures have already passed resolutions expressing their dismay and demanding repeal of the RAT. Opposition has created strange bedfellows. For example, testimony for the Montana resolution came from the Montana Wilderness Association, Montana Logging Association, the Sierra Club and the Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association.
George Ochenski, in a March editorial for the Missoula Independent wrote, "None of us would ever consent to pay a fee every time we wanted to enter our own home ... yet the Feds can and will start charging us every time we camp at the little BLM river pullout we've used for decades. These lands are our heritage as American citizens, and if the feds think they can charge us to use something we already own ... they are terribly mistaken."
Irate citizens in Sandpoint, Idaho, have formed a diverse alliance, including Republicans, Democrats, wilderness advocates and motorized recreation enthusiasts, demanding that their state legislature also pass a resolution against the RAT. They asked Idaho Rep. George Eskridge to sponsor the resolution. Eskridge said of our national forests' founder, "Teddy Roosevelt's intent was not to make money."
The public is invited to an informational meeting at the Sandpoint Community Hall on Wednesday, June 22, at 6 pm. Idaho state legislators Anderson, Eskridge and Keough will be present, as will some Bonner County and Sandpoint city officials.
I believe that a major shift in federal land management policy is being developed and implemented by this stealth legislation. Nature itself is being converted into a commodity instead of remaining a precious heritage that we can pass on to our children.
In explaining this fee program to people, I once joked that soon they will charge us for looking at a sunset. I was recently informed that my joke has come true. There is a cliff overlooking the Pacific in a California forest, where people gather to view the sunset. Sure enough, it has become a fee area. See you at the meeting.
Ken Fischman is a retired physician who lives in Sandpoint, Idaho.