Every now and then a top-notch journalist writes an unusually good feature article for a national magazine detailing what's honestly happening with respect to federal pay-to-play recreation policy. In the current edition of FlyRod and Reel, conservationist / outdoor writer Ted Williams has done exactly that.
Pasted below is Williams' "Robbed by RAT's." The article starts by saying "You're losing more than money when you have to pay to fish public water" and goes on to explain what, exactly, we've all been losing as a result of radically shifting outdoor recreation policies.
For those unfamiliar with this issue, Robbed by RAT's is an excellent primer. For those who believe they're being good conservationists and/or citizens when they pay to play, Robbed by RAT's may cause you to question that belief. For those who already understand what is wrong with pay to play and wrong with how it is being executed, you're likely going to find it feels good to discover that more and more outdoor recreationists are coming to understand these issues as you already do.
Robbed by RAT's
By Ted Williams
You're losing more than money when you have to pay to fish public water
It sounded okay when Congress authorized it in 1996. The few sportsmen
and environmentalists who even noticed vacillated between disinterest
and mild approval. Starved for funds, as always, the Forest Service,
Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife
Service would charge the public new or increased fees for accessing its
land to fish, hunt, boat, drive, park, camp, walk. . . . It was going
to be an "experiment"--a three-year pilot program. That's why it was
called the "Fee Demonstration."
Americans were used to paying entrance fees at national parks and
wildlife refuges. But after Fee Demo was extended through 2001 they
expressed outrage about what they came to call the Recreation Access
Tax (RAT) on national forests and BLM land. Late in 2004 RAT was
extended yet again--this time for 10 years--when Fee Demo was replaced
with the Recreation Enhancement Act, a law that empowers the four
agencies to charge even more access fees.
Scott Silver, director of the Bend, Oregon-based Wild Wilderness--one
of the very few environmental groups that has sounded the alarm--lives
two blocks from the Deschutes River, world famous for its steelhead.
"At the end of town the Deschutes National Forest begins," he says.
"Upriver for maybe five miles is what the Forest Service now calls a
High Impact Recreation Area, and I cannot go anywhere there in a car
without having paid. An access road runs parallel to the river, and
there are about three perpendicular roads to it. You may be a mile
away, but as soon as you enter one of those perpendicular roads you're
confronted by a sign that says 'Entering Fee Area.' I use a kayak.
You're not going to carry a kayak a mile."
"These fees have been very controversial to say the least," comments
Rick Swanson, the Forest Service's respected river and wetlands point
person. "Look at the reaction you get when you talk about saltwater
licenses. The whole gauntlet of, 'Hell no I won't pay,' to 'Yeah we
really need to kick in more.' It's the same thing with fees. Some
people realize what's out there and what's at stake and how we're
having trouble trying to provide recreation for the American public.
The money is getting to the ground."
Swanson's saltwater-license analogy is especially apt, but not in the
way he imagines. The real benefit of saltwater licenses has not been
revenue for management but representation in management decisions for
recreational interests (in this case anglers). The same is true of RAT.
But what recreational interests are we talking about?
Fee Demonstration and the Recreation Enhancement Act were written by
and for the motorized-recreation industry. There was no Congressional
or public involvement. Both RAT laws were slipped through as midnight
riders tacked to appropriation bills because the industry knew they
couldn't survive open debate.
Sponsoring Fee Demo via a cost-share partnership with the Forest
Service was the powerful American Recreation Coalition (ARC) whose
membership is comprised mainly of manufacturers of ATV's, motorized
trailbikes, jetskis and RV's. And joining ARC in lobbying aggressively
for both RAT laws have been the National Off Highway Vehicle Coalition,
the National Snowmobile Manufacturers Association and such odious
"wise-use" fronts for the motorized recreational industry as the Blue
As a result, anglers now have fewer places to find quietude and
wildness or listen to birdsong or the music of rushing water or wind
through forest canopies. Hike into any remote stream or pond in
non-wilderness and you're likely to be assaulted by the screech and
whine of internal-combustion engines. Pretty discouraging when you've
invested two or three hours, and the guys on the machines have invested
Today ATV's account for five percent of all visits to national forests
and grasslands. Ninety percent of BLM lands are now open to motorized
recreation; the agency even sponsors races. And the machines themselves
have grown from little farmyard putt-putts to monsters with double
seats, megashocks, and 700-cubic-centimeter engines.
Recreational vehicles need to be regulated, not banned. "You're not
going to get rid of them," says Scott Silver. "But you can't let these
agencies look at motorized recreational industries and call them
'partners' and 'stakeholders.' That's nonsense. The environmental
community is under the delusion that motorized recreation is somehow
going to be managed with these user fees. No. It's going to be used and
abused to give the industries the best advantage they can negotiate.
Because we don't understand reality, they're negotiating better then we
But the recreational-vehicle issue is just a sidebar. Although Rick
Swanson has it right about RAT funds getting to the ground (at least in
most cases), appropriations from Congress keep disappearing into
bureaucratic black holes. So RAT money--virtually none of which goes to
fisheries research or enhancement--has become both a replacement for
squandered wealth and an incentive for continued profligacy.
Instead of shaking down visitors for a few extra bucks on top of what
the IRS has taxed them to buy and maintain the property, on top of what
state game and fish departments and the Park Service have charged them
for fishing licenses, on top of what the Fish and Wildlife Service has
charged them to buy and maintain refuges, and on top of what
campgrounds charge them to spend the night, the agencies might try not
wasting the money they already have. For instance, the BLM and Forest
Service could save $2 billion a year and dramatically improve fishing
and hunting by desisting from below-cost timber sales and unnecessary
road building. The maintenance backlog for Forest Service roads (which
could circle the globe 19 times) is $10 billion. It can't even take
care of the roads it has, and yet it's building new ones.
What's more, the non-motorized people paying RAT fees are the very ones
most invested in public lands and who, in many instances, have
volunteered to staff visitor centers, maintain trails, pick up litter,
find lost hikers, remove invasive exotic plants, restore stream
habitat, and backpack trout fry to high-country lakes. The best analogy
I've seen is the Park Service sending France a bill for refurbishment
and maintenance of the Statue of Liberty.
"I fish," wrote John Voelker in probably the most quoted statement on
angling since Walton, "because I love to, because I love the environs
where trout are found, which are invariably beautiful, and hate the
environs where crowds of people are found, which are invariably ugly."
But RAT puts federal resource agencies in the business of attracting
crowds of people, thereby disfiguring the environs of trout. It
motivates managers to ignore sportsmen and promote instead activities
that damage fish and wildlife and conflict with fishing and hunting.
Recreation becomes a business. Our rivers, lakes, grasslands and
forests become Disneyfied amusement parks.
Noted outdoor writer and Field & Stream's erstwhile conservation
editor Michael Frome offers this: "Stewardship of public
lands--especially wilderness--often requires limitation of use, but
[RAT] provides a powerful incentive for managers to avoid anything that
will limit use--the more use they can generate, the greater their
budgets. Money is not the simple answer, but Congress must provide the
funding to do the necessary administration to maintain these national
treasures for future generations. It should not order administrators to
merchandise the resource in order to pay their salaries."
We're seeing the results of this incentive in a new Forest Service
program under way (sans public participation or Congressional
oversight) called "Recreation Site Facility Master Planning." The
agency evaluates recreation facilities in each forest, then assesses
them for profitability. In some forests this means closing almost half
the recreational sites--the ones that generate the least revenue. The
remote campgrounds and trailheads--places to which an angler seeking a
quality fishing experience would naturally gravitate--are first to get
disappeared. Bulldozers are knocking down campgrounds, dismantling
latrines, even removing fire pits. You won't be able to even park.
For instance, the new master plan for the Mark Twain National Forest in
Missouri calls for reducing "Recreation Areas" (containing one or more
campgrounds, picnic areas, boat accesses or trailheads) from 53 to 30,
campgrounds from 36 to 22, picnic areas from 41 to 25, and trailheads
from 51 to 38. In Colorado about half the 140 campgrounds and other
recreational facilities on the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison
national forests face closure. The BLM has just announced a similar
RAT fees provide an excuse for Congress and the administration to chip
away at critically needed programs such as the Land and Water
Conservation Fund (derived from oil and gas exploration leases). The
four agencies use the fund to purchase fish and wildlife habitat, an
activity the president frowns on because the privatizers inside and
outside the White House who have his ear contend that the feds
shouldn't be "tying up land." The Land and Water Conservation Fund is
supposed to provide $900 million a year for public-lands projects to
offset damage caused by offshore drilling. For 2007 the president has
asked for $84 million.
The Western Slope No-Fee Coalition estimates that the Forest Service
will decommission about 3,000 campsites, day-use facilities, picnic
areas, trailheads and parking places. "Very little budget money from
Congress is getting to the ground," says the group's president, Robert
Funkhouser. "About 80 percent is used for administration." As for
anglers getting any return on their RAT investments, Funkhouser says
this: "I stay pretty close to this subject, and I have never heard
about fee revenue going toward fish or fish habitat. I would feel
pretty comfortable saying it doesn't."
The same grim scenario is unfolding on our national wildlife refuges
that the Bush administration--again, at the behest of privatizers--has
placed on a starvation diet. RAT fees aren't helping. Last December I
visited the Pahranagat Valley National Wildlife Refuge in southern
Nevada--a 10-mile ribbon of green in the Mojave Desert and one of the
few places in this, our driest state, where the public can fish. The
Upper Lake has a good population of largemouth bass, but it's infested
with carp. The carp muddy the water, degrading bass habitat and
preventing photosynthesis in plants that sustain waterfowl.
To keep the carp out the refuge installed weirs on the pathetic,
irrigation-depleted remains of its water source, the White River. But
it has no money to maintain the weirs (which are rotting where they
stand) and no money to control the carp. This is a land of imperiled
desert fishes--relics from extinct glacial lakes that have miraculously
adapted to desert life. The refuge contains many springs that probably
sustain federally listed species such as threatened White River
springfish and possibly endangered roundtail chubs (clinging to
existence in a nearby artificial pond and thought to be extinct in the
wild). But the refuge can't even afford a biologist to inventory the
springs. "I need that data to make good decisions," declares refuge
manager, Merry Maxwell.
In January the Fish and Wildlife Service's eight-state, 54-refuge
Midwest Region announced a plan to reduce the workforce by about 20
percent. "Our sense is that about a third of the refuges in that region
are going to be in 'preservation status,' which means they'll be
unstaffed," says Jeff Ruch, director of Public Employees for
Summing up the whole sorry mess for all federal resource agencies is
district ranger Cid Morgan of the Angeles National Forest in
California: "We're going to have to do more with less until we do
everything with nothing."
As abusive as RAT fees are in their own right, the Forest Service is
abusing them further by playing fast and loose with the law. The
Recreation Enhancement Act of 2004 was supposed to fix all the problems
with Fee Demo. No longer would the public be charged just to, say, go
fishing, but only if a site had "significant investment," which the act
defined as six amenities: security services (staffers who check to see
if you've paid), parking, toilets, picnic tables, permanent trash
receptacles and permanent interpretation (signs with such messages as
"Don't feed the animals").
What happened on the Deschutes National Forest is typical. "One day,"
says Scott Silver, "and I mean one day, the Forest Service goes out and
buys a bunch of 30-gallon, galvanized trashcans and some chains and
padlocks and drops them off at places they'd been charging without
being in compliance."
A site has to have all six amenities. But the Forest Service has
dreamed up a way of getting around the law by designating sections of
forest as "High Impact Recreation Areas" (HIRA's). One corner of a HIRA
has a sign; another corner, perhaps two miles away, might have a trash
can. Three miles from both might be a parking lot. The Recreation
Enhancement Act makes no reference, oblique or otherwise, to anything
like an HIRA. The concept is simply Forest Service sleight of hand. And
HIRA's are being set up all across the national forest system.
The Forest Service has been flouting even its own bizarre
interpretation of the law. Last year it admitted to the Senate
Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests that 739 HIRA's didn't have
the six amenities. Moreover, it had not bothered to report 627 of these
HIRA's to Congress, a violation of the Recreation Enhancement Act,
which forbids designation of new fee sites without public
participation. And there are at least 3,000 former Fee Demo sites
outside HIRA's that are still charging fees, many of them illegally.
When Scott Silver got a ticket for refusing to pay a RAT fee in a
Deschutes HIRA he informed the US attorney that he would be
representing himself in court. The feds immediately dropped the charge.
But they prosecuted Christine Wallace, a Tucson legal secretary, who
wouldn't pay two tickets for what amounted to hiking without a license
on a Coronado National Forest HIRA in Arizona. While the Recreation
Enhancement Act allows RAT fees, it specifically prohibits the Forest
Service and BLM from charging entrance fees. Accordingly, the court
found that by charging a fee for entering the HIRA and for parking, the
Forest Service had illegally implemented the law.
But the agency appealed and on January 16, 2007 won a reversal. If the
ruling stands, it establishes case law that makes it a crime to fish or
even get out of your vehicle on your own land without finding a ranger
station (if one is open) and coughing up money that even the
motorized-recreation axis that hatched RAT fees never intended for you
When federal agencies come to depend on funding from special interests
the special interests wind up running the show. In the fish-rich
Sawtooth National Recreation Area in Idaho, as on so much public land
entrusted to the Forest Service, the campgrounds have been taken over
by concessionaires. After a public-relations disaster in this land of
fed haters, managers here have recently backed away from RAT fees. But
the damage has been done.
"Services at the concessionaire-run campgrounds are minimal and charges
are high," says former Idaho conservation officer Gary Gadwa, who now
directs the Sawtooth Interpretive and Historical Association and
volunteers for the Forest Service. "You might as well be paying to stay
in an RV park. That's how expensive the campgrounds have become. We get
1.5 million visitors a year. This area is very popular for
fishing--high-mountain lakes, streams, rivers and steelhead in the
Salmon River. But very little of the [RAT] money went to fisheries or
fisheries research and with all the fishing opportunities the need is
There's also a pressing need on the Sawtooth and elsewhere for
monitoring species listed under the Endangered Species Act such as
Chinook salmon, sockeye salmon, steelhead and bull trout. But the
Recreational Enhancement Act explicitly prohibits the agencies from
spending RAT fees for this purpose. The law was written by Rep. Richard
Pombo (R-CA) whose career-long crusade against the Endangered Species
Act got him defeated in the last election.
Empowered by RAT fees, concessionaires are taking over our national
parks as well as our national forests. So bad has the Disneyfication
processes become that in 2005 the Park Service nearly succeeded with a
"draft directive" in which it would have raised additional funds
through corporate sponsorship. Gale Norton, then secretary of Interior
and the Bush administration's queen privatizer, called the proposal
"exciting." Most any corporate enterprise, even alcohol, tobacco and
gambling companies, would have been eligible for sponsorship. Had not
the public recoiled in disgust, the promo might have read: "Fish Grand
Teton National Park, brought to you by Wonder Bra."
Still, the Park Service has what it calls "Proud Partners" (American
Airlines, Discovery Communications, Inc., Ford Motor Company and
Unilever) whose monetary contributions allow them to cash in on the
Park Service logo. And another overt effort like the draft directive of
2005 would be anything but a surprise.
Pombo and the motorized recreational industries that brought us RAT
fees never intended them to benefit fish, wildlife or any of the other
natural attributes that make our public lands so special. A veteran
Park Service biologist told me this: "Back in 2000 the Bush campaign
talked about the maintenance backlog in the parks. The strategy, as I
perceive it, was to redirect fee dollars away from all the important
projects that parks were spending them on--planning, resource work,
management. The Recreation Enhancement Act has basically taken away the
ability to fund those programs. And now the administration can say, 'Oh
look we're spending millions on maintenance.'"
RAT fees are just part of a decades-old campaign to privatize
government and the land it manages. Perhaps that agenda is best
articulated by Republican spinmeister Grover Norquist, who runs the
anti-tax lobbying outfit Americans for Tax Reform: "I don't want to
abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can
drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."
As long as Bush/Reagan-era privatizers wield power in the legislative
and executive branches of government the future looks bleak. On
February 2, 2007 the Forest Service's northern regional forester,
Abigail Kimbell, took over for retiring chief Dale Bosworth, a decent,
competent man who tried and often was not allowed to do the right thing
and who pursued the administration's privatization agenda but without
Kimbell, on the other hand, has compiled a long record of brutal timber
extraction and punishing her employees for doing their jobs, especially
when it comes to defending fish and wildlife.
She says she wants to increase access fees.