Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Silver v Walden: The Seeds of Discontent

Putting aside for a moment the question of whether Bend activist Scott Silver files an official candidacy against strong incumbent Greg Walden (OR-2), I moved on to what I thought was the next most important question: WHY is he thinking about running against Greg Walden, the strong incumbent? I think I might have some hints as to why, presented in striking detail over the course of 15 months by Bend.com, of all places.

If you read the first piece we did on Silver yesterday, you know that he's an environmental activist with a particular axe to grind: 'fee-demo' charges at federal wilderness recreation sites. During the Clinton administration Congress passed a 'demonstration' program for three years to allow parks and forests to charge fees to cover costs of amenities and maintenance. Somewhere along the way, the demo became extended, and again, and again--and the program became a way for private concessionaires to be profitable in receiving outsourced work from the Interior and Agriculture Departments. Given free rein to charge for things in the name of "upkeep," charges suddenly began to multiply.

Fast forward to 2003, when Silver is fighting yet another extension, one that seems likely after a DeFazio-backed amendment to stop it fails. Leading a small team of demonstrators, Silver acknowledged defeat but pledged to fight on, recognizing his allies in the battle. One of those allies sounds awfully familiar:
Silver said Walden “did an excellent job of stating why Oregonians really and truly do not support fee-demo and why they want the program to end sooner rather than later.”

“He’s always been against this, but he hasn’t shown leadership, as a voice against it. It took a certain amount of guts,” Silver said, with some heavy-hitters on the opposing side on the issue, such as Norm Dicks of Washington.”
So the battle was lost, but Oregon Congresspeople seemed united in keeping Oregon wildlands under federal control freely accessible. Hallelujah!

Shuffle forward again to September 2004, and both men are singing a different tune:
A House panel’s voice vote Wednesday to proceed with new trail and parks fee legislation was hailed by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who voted in support, and lambasted as a failure of democracy by Bend fee foe Scott Silver, founder of Wild Wilderness.
The House Resources Committee passed legislation that Walden's news release said is aimed at "improving facilities and visitor opportunities on federal recreational lands by establishing parameters for usage fees based on the amount of management and maintenance on a given recreational site."

"In addition, the legislation calls for a direct reinvestment of at least 80 percent of fee receipts into site management in an effort to reduce backlog of maintenance projects and to keep these fees from being used for other government projects," said the release from Walden, who joined in support of H.R. 3283, sponsored by Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio.
["Bend fee foe." Hee. The urge to say 'fum' is overwhelming.]

Did someone get to Greg Walden? Or did he suddenly change his mind and decide that he liked the program after all? His arguments for it, sound suspiciously like the same ones that Silver blasted as diversionary a year previous:
Silver said he, like Walden, has “no problem paying for developed campground areas,” as long as the money is used to manage those campgrounds, or returned to the Land Water Conservation Fund, as was the case before fee-demo. “But neither are the case these days,” he said, “except for the rare campground that the Forest Service has not already given to a concessionaire to run.” The LWCF, he said, was very limited, in terms of where recreation fees could be charged, unlike the fee-demo program.
What's Walden's out? That 80% of fees in the 2004 version had to be returned to "site management." Well heck, all that means is that the money stayed on site. The fees simply become the justification for development--where things are built by in order to recoup the investment through fees. But look how proudly he touts the claimed benefits of a program he "gutsily" helped put down earlier in the same Congress!

Obviously, there's some history here. It didn't look like a bad history at one point, but the comity has assuredly gone sour, and I wouldn't be surprised if Walden's fee-demo 180 will earn him a strident--if not yet competitive--challenge. Which brings up a last point--since the story broke, the natural consensus has been that anybody challenging Walden is looking way uphill. However, even given relatively cheap airtime in his mostly rural district, $800K on hand is not a major warchest for a spirited opposition. Is it enough to win? Probably--but anything under a million at this point is surmountable.