Montana tells the federal government to butt out

  • George Ochenski

 

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 had better think twice when it comes to charging Montanans to use our national lands and waters.

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 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 the 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 backyard. 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 RAT repealing measure cleared the state Senate should inform them that they are terribly mistaken.

Nor are recreation fees the only thing driving Montanans 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 its 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.

When Schweitzer told the generals that he wanted to go to Iraq to visit the troops, they said he needed State Department clearance to do so. Now get that straight: Schweitzer is the commander in chief of the Montana National Guard. Yet he was 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, Schweitzer’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 lobbyist and writer in Helena, Montana.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...