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What with all the Cheney-Bush regime’s titanic screw-ups and tyrannical efforts to screw us, complaining about federal toll booths on public lands might seem to epitomize the all-American habit of focusing on the picayune. But David Neiwert (of Orcinus) has a good piece up on the subject at Campaign for America’s Future, The Phonies in the Woods.

As he points out – with some well-placed kicks to Sen. Larry Craig's reputation – even Democrat-haters in the red states are wondering why right-wing politicians they trusted to pay attention to their interests are as eager to stick it to them as they are to anyone else who isn't on their list of cronies.

The point no doubt came home for many of them the past three years when they decided to go fishing or camping somewhere and found that they were being expected to fork over even more money at the trailhead -- with the money actually going toward the private development of business on those lands.

Last week, Sens. Max Baucus, D-Montana, and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, introduced legislation that would bring an end to the Bush administration's scheme to make the public pay twice for using public lands, all to the benefit of the resource-extraction industry.

At issue, as it has been since 2004, is the Recreation Access Tax, part of the Federal Lands Recreational Enhancement Act (FLREA).

"It’s time for the RAT tax to go," Baucus told NewWest.Net in announcing the upcoming legislation. "Americans already pay to use their public lands on April 15. We shouldn’t be taxed twice."

Baucus also said, "I’ve crafted a common-sense piece of legislation that will nix this unfair fee system once and for all. Hopefully we can begin to resolve some of the controversies that have dogged communities across the West. Access to public land is a value Westerners hold dear. Families shouldn’t have to pay higher and higher fees to go hiking, camping, hunting or fishing."

Much of the money collected from RAT goes to providing "public amenities" on public land, many of which are run by private outfits.

As Ted Williams of FlyRod+Reel Online writes:

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.

The Cheney-Bush Administration has called for a 31 percent cut in Forest Service road maintenance. The goal: stick states and local communities with upkeep costs while providing public land benefits – like logging roads – to corporadoes who don’t pay their own way. Rank-and-file citizens, on the other hand, have to buy a ticket. Meanwhile, the parks and forest habitats become ever more degraded.

As Neiwert says:

Craig is like a lot of western Republicans: they love to pose as "outdoorsmen" and never miss photo ops showing them out hunting or fishing. But if you look closely, you can see that it's a distinctly corporate kind of recreation, often under extremely controlled circumstances.

The embodiment of this is Dick Cheney, scion of Wyoming politics, out hunting specially raised quail on a game farm in Texas, or fly-fishing on the Teton River just below a recent hatchery release. Cheney, of course, is adamant about letting salmon go extinct in the Columbia and elsewhere: you'll recall that Cheney played a central role in creating the West's largest fish kill ever, in 2003 on the Klamath.

Of course, guys like Cheney and Craig don't need to worry about such trifles because they know that, even if every public wildlife habitat turns belly-up, they can just go to their corporate pals' private playgrounds, the ranches and resorts, and blast away. Or failing that, they can head out to those new privately managed resorts in the national parks and forests. That's how the magic of the marketplace works, dontcha know?

While toll-booth complaints may seem petty, the RAT is all of a piece with other public lands policy. Since arriving in Washington, the Cheney-Bush crew has greatly increased federal oil and gas leasing at taxpayer expense. Only 25 percent of 41 million leased public acres are being drilled. Yet the acquisition of leases continues unabated. Meanwhile, there are fewer federal audits being conducted on those leases than in previous Administrations. As a report last December pointed out, because of the rise in leases and staff cuts at the Minerals Management Service, the government depends on "compliance reviews," which means auditors use information provided by the companies, rather than detailed audits, independent information or site visits.

Is it any wonder then that even conservative Republicans like Mike Crapo and organizations as far right as the National Rifle Association think that maybe having guys in office who turn everything they touch into gold for their cronies isn’t so great if it turns so much else to crap?

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Tue Dec 11, 2007 at 09:24 PM PST.

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