Would you still call your town library "public" if a private corporation managed the books your taxes paid for, then charged you a fee to borrow them? Thanks to a provision sneaked into the recently passed federal spending bill, we may face that question about our public lands.

Just hours before senators were expected to vote on the $388 billion, 3,000-plus page bill, a rider-- meaning no debate or vote possible — was inserted, courtesy of Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, and Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. The rider to the spending bill authorized federal agencies to extend recreation access fees on most public lands for the next 10 years.

The tactic avoided an unwinnable vote on a program opposed by more than 300 organizations, four states and many county governments. Now, access fees can be charged on 600 million acres of our public land — an area more than six times the size of Montana. These fees are more than a nuisance form of taxation. They undermine the very idea of these lands as publicly owned, and they open a path to unprecedented commercialization.

Until 1996, charging access fees was expressly prohibited on most federal land, with the exception of national parks and developed boating or campground facilities. Other commercial activity was strictly limited. But during the 1990s, Congress slashed funding for federal lands upkeep, creating a "crisis" rife with opportunity for groups like the American Recreation Coalition, a consortium of advocacy groups and corporations that profit from operating campgrounds, marinas, concessions and motorized recreation equipment. The coalition lobbied intensively for "public-private partnerships." User fees were touted as an alternative funding source.

After Ohio Rep. Regula failed to pass the recreation tax in the House, he slipped a rider into the 1996 appropriations bill; that is how the tax first became law with virtually no public awareness.

Started as a two-year test on a limited number of sites, the program widely known as Fee Demo has been extended through the rider tactic several times. What’s different now is coercion: Venturing onto public land without paying a required fee will be a criminal act, punishable by up to six months in prison or a $5,000 fine. This has led critics such as Scott Silver of Wild Wilderness to dub fees the "Recreation Access Tax," or RAT.

Until now, the uncertain future of Fee Demo limited exploitation of public lands. With a decade-long guarantee, the recreation industry will push aggressively to exploit the immense profit opportunities. Already, federal documents raise the possibility of new marinas, hotels, and even theme parks. Public-lands managers whose budgets become dependent on user fees will be put in a bind: While fees were once pitched as a supplement to federal funding, they now enable further cuts in appropriated funds.

The Forest Service reported $39 million in Fee Demo revenue for 2003, and said 80 percent of funds went to improve conditions in the places they were collected. An earlier General Accounting Office report refuted that claim. The GAO documented that promotion, collection, enforcement and vendor commissions on recreation-pass sales consumed about 50 percent of the gross revenues.

Meanwhile, taxpayers fork over almost a half-billion dollars annually to subsidize logging operations, according to the latest data. The recreation industry recognizes a similar opportunity to profit from public assets. Hundreds of campgrounds on public lands now have already been privatized, complete with reservations run by Ticketmaster. Perhaps this sounds like the library I described that’s managed by a private company.

Paying $5 to hike may not burden everyone, but the fees are demonstrably exclusive. Almost one quarter of citizens with incomes under $30,000 said they were deterred from using fee areas, according to a survey by the Forest Service and University of Massachusetts. The greater threat, however, is removing limits to commercialism (Chevron National Forest, anyone?) that keep most public lands an oasis for human enjoyment and also protect habitat for thousands of species.

Thankfully, the sneaky maneuver by Regula and Stevens has enraged some Western Republican senators. It has also energized opponents to reverse the rider in the next session of Congress. Citizens who care for our shared treasure might want to join the effort, for if the access tax continues for 10 years, the opportunity may be gone forever. After a decade of paying to play, people might forget that public lands belong to all of us; that they are a birthright to protect and not a commodity that’s available mainly to those who can afford it.

Jeff Milchen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He directs ReclaimDemocracy.org, a non-profit organization in Bozeman, Montana.