Montana tells the federal government to butt out
No one knows just when the West decided it had had enough of being run from Washington, D.C.
The indications that Montanans have had it with federal mandates became evident in the state Legislature this March. Although the capital routinely ignores the opinions of a state like Montana, which boasts fewer than a million people scattered across the fourth-largest landmass in the union, it better think twice when it comes to charging Montanans to use the national lands and waters that surround us.
House Joint Resolution 13, sponsored by State Rep. Paul Clark, D, demands the repeal of the misnamed Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, which in the more popular vernacular is known as the Recreation Access Tax, or RAT. The resolution doesn't have the power of law, and it surely won't stop the federal government, but at last week's hearing, such a stunning political cross-section of Montanans showed up to support it that maybe, just maybe, it might garner a little attention from the federal powers.
Who could have predicted that backpackers of the Montana Wilderness Association would be on the same side as the four-wheelers and dirt bikers of the Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association? Or that the Sierra Club would find an ally in Montanans for Multiple Use? How is it possible that these traditional opponents were also joined by the Montana Wood Products Association, the Montana State Parks Foundation, Citizens for Balanced Use, the Montana Logging Association and the governor's office?
The answer is simple. None of us would ever consent to pay a fee every time we wanted to enter our home or fire up the barbecue in our own back yard. Yet, under the provisions of the RAT, public-land managers can and will start charging us every time we camp at the little river pullout on Bureau of Land Management land we've used for decades, or launch our canoe from a federal site, or have a family picnic in the national forest. These lands are our heritage as American citizens, and if the feds think they can charge us to use something we already own, the 49-1 vote by which the measure cleared the Senate should inform them that they are terribly mistaken.
Nor are recreation fees the only thing driving Westerners to take a stand against the federal government. A resolution from Democrat Jim Elliott targeted the USA Patriot Act and explicitly requests Montana's attorney general to "permanently dispose" of any intelligence information held by the state "to which there is not attached a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity." In other words, tell the federal government that their covert mining of personal information on Montana citizens will not be tolerated here. Nor will racial profiling, the "use of state resources for the enforcement of federal immigration matters," or the collection of information about "the political, religious, or social views, associations, or activities of any individual group, association, organization, corporation, business, or partnership" unless the information "directly relates to an investigation of criminal activities." That resolution zipped out of the Senate on a 40-10 vote.
Then there is Gov. Brian Schweitzer's request to bring Montana's National Guard troops and helicopters home from Iraq to fight what is feared will be a huge wildfire threat this summer. The generals in D.C. are alarmed that a governor would make such a request, and have already tried to arrange a meeting to mumble soothing reassurances to Schweitzer.
But when Schweitzer told them he wanted to go to Iraq to visit our troops, they told him he needed State Department clearance to do so. Now get that straight: Schweitzer is the commander in chief of the Montana National Guard, but he is being told he needs clearance from some D.C. bureaucrat to go talk with his own troops, let alone bring them home.
Montana is not alone in this battle. Governors, legislatures and local governments across the West are rising to oppose the draconian measures emanating from a federal government that seems to have forgotten we are a union of states -- not a dictatorship.
Yes, it is true that closed meetings proliferate like never before as a cowed populace and press are humbled by the federal fist. But as Hal Harper, the governor's chief policy adviser, said during the House hearing on the anti-fee resolution: "If you want to incite revolution in this state, start charging hunters and anglers and campers a fee to access their own public lands."
Harper is right — and in fact, the Western revolution has already begun.
George Ochenski is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a lobbyist and writer in Helena, Montana.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.