Hiker with a heavily loaded backpack stands on the bank of a pond.
Photo by Tyson Dudley

Is a ‘Backpack Tax’ the Best Approach to Sustaining Conservation Funding?

Follow me on a trip to Walmart as I prepare for Missouri’s fall turkey season. For the sake of hypotheticals, let’s say this is my first time turkey hunting, and with my hunter’s education training behind me, I am eager to test my new mettle.

I zig-zag my way to the sporting goods section, buy a $17 resident permit, a $600 12-gauge shotgun and a $30 box of non-toxic turkey loads. Total: $647, before sales tax. I pay and head to the woods.

I just contributed $87 to conservation.

The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 (Pittman-Robertson Act) and the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act (Dingell-Johnson Act) respectively established excise taxes on equipment purchased for hunting and fishing — money that is then distributed to states for the management of wildlife and their habitat, research, surveys and more.

Excise tax + the cost of the permit = conservation. This is a system for which hunters and anglers themselves lobbied in the early 1900s. But, with the number of hunters declining in recent years — they currently represent approximately 4 percent of all Americans — their dwindling numbers have revived the idea of applying the same concept for funding conservation to a more sizeable group.

In 2017, approximately 146 million Americans participated in an outdoor activity at least once, according to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2018 Outdoor Recreation Economy Report. Subtract the 36 million anglers and 12 million hunters who already contribute to conservation funding through excise taxes and permits, and this leaves 98 million Americans who recreate in the out-of-doors without shouldering any of the costs of conservation.

This imbalance is not a new revelation, however, and neither is the idea of a “backpack tax,” a measure introduced in the late ’90s by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. It would apply the concept of the successful Pittman-Robertson and Dingell–Johnson Acts to recreationalists who neither fish nor hunt — who often refer to themselves as “non-consumptive” users of the outdoors. This measure would instate a tax on a range of products pertaining to outdoor recreation.

“Unlike fishing and hunting gear, the equipment used for [hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, and rock climbing] does not generate revenue for public land management.”

Obviously, the thought of a new tax doesn’t have me eagerly digging for my checkbook, but considering the implications, there are compelling arguments both for and against a “backpack tax.”

The Outdoor Industry Association, in opposition to such a tax, explains on its website that the industry it represents already pays significant taxes: “Outdoor products generate about $650 million from disproportionately high import taxes every year. In addition to paying substantial tariff revenue, the outdoor recreation industry also generates an additional $40 billion in federal taxes every year (another $40 billion in taxes is paid at the state and local level).”

The organization also notes that the tax would affect more than outdoor recreationalists; families with school children would pay additional taxes on backpacks only to be used in the great indoors.

That the government should first do more with the tools currently available is another criticism used by opponents of a tax levy. In arguing their case, they often cite the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), legislation that earmarks $900 million a year from offshore oil and gas lease revenue for conservation. With appropriations often diverted by Congress, LWCF has been severely underfunded for the vast majority of its existence and has only been fully funded twice in its history, resulting in a backlog of projects.

As Frederick Reimers explained in a 2017 Outside magazine article, “It’s no secret that our public lands are in trouble. The Forest Service has had its budget cut, for everything but firefighting, by 36 percent since 1995, and the Park Service is teetering atop a $12 billion maintenance backlog. Oregon is selling a popular state forest full of old growth to make ends meet, and a Colorado nonprofit estimates that it’ll take $24 million to repair trails on the state’s fourteeners alone.”

“Although they are often considered ‘non-consumptive users,’ these recreationists have come to expect well-maintained trails, well-managed forests and rivers, and search and rescue services — all of which require significant amounts of funding.

This reality — along with that of disappearing hunters and anglers — has led to a groundswell of support for, if not a tax, at least some method of ensuring that recreationalists also “pay to play.”

“Many of today’s fastest growing outdoor activities — hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, and rock climbing — require few, if any, licenses or fees,” writes Whitney Tilt on the Property and Environment Research Center website. “And unlike fishing and hunting gear, the equipment used for these activities does not generate revenue for public land management.”

The funding mechanism for the North American Model of Conservation, considered to be the best model of conservation in the world, was designed at a time when hunters and anglers dominated the landscape. They understood that they must contribute in order to continue to engage in the recreation they loved. The results of their activism — the recovery of whitetail deer, wild turkey, elk and other species — are clear and ongoing, but not definite.

As outdoor recreation evolves, so should the means of funding conservation, Tilt notes. “Although they are often considered ‘non-consumptive users,’ these recreationists have come to expect well-maintained trails, well-managed forests and rivers, and search and rescue services — all of which require significant amounts of funding,” she writes. “Mountain biking requires trails, kayaking requires river access, and wildlife viewing requires wildlife habitat. Yet such users are often free riders who do not pay to play.”

The call of the out-of-doors has howled since the creation of the door itself, but its permanence is not guaranteed. As sportsmen and women watched wildlife disappear before their eyes at the turn of the 20th century, they demanded that they themselves be held accountable for its conservation.

As outdoor recreation continues to evolve, is a ‘backpack tax’ the best approach to sustaining conservation funding?

Michael Vollman
Michael Vollman is a creative writer whose passion for hunting, fishing and hiking lands him in the outdoors regularly, but — he would argue — not nearly enough. Although he wasn’t born an outdoorsman, the occasional camping trip with the family, summer vacations to the Great Smoky Mountains and a hunting trip or two with dad were enough to instill in him a call to the out-of-doors. This calling has led to his interest in and desire to not only spend time in the wild but also do what he can to protect it.

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