Shawn Regan and Tate Watkins are both researchers at the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), a free-market environmental think tank in Bozeman, Mont.
Outdoor recreationists got a major boost last week. President Donald Trump called on Congress to send him a bill that fully and permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which uses offshore oil and gas lease revenue to support federal and local public land acquisition. “When I sign it into law, it will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands,” he tweeted.
If that seems like a weird flex, it is. Trump’s budget proposals have repeatedly aimed to cut funding for the LWCF, which is authorized at $900 million per year but regularly receives less than half of that amount from Congress. (The administration’s latest budget proposal, released last month, calls for a 97 percent reduction to the fund.) But the move is widely viewed as a way to help several pro-LWCF Republican senators who are facing tough re-election battles, including Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, where outdoor recreation is a major political issue.
So good news for outdoor recreationists, right? Maybe. The bill still has to get across the finish line, and as E&E News recently reported, several hurdles remain. For one thing, full funding would require Congress to first meet pay-as-you-go budgeting rules — the $900 million per year in mandatory spending would essentially have to be offset by reducing spending elsewhere. That could make it more difficult to deliver on other priorities, such as creating a fund to chip away at the $12 billion maintenance backlog in national parks — something Trump also called for in his tweet.
More fundamentally, there’s a fact that no one seems to be acknowledging: Funding for the LWCF — and the proposed park maintenance fund, too — comes from energy development on federal land and waters, particularly from oil and gas, which is not exactly popular right now. All of the remaining Democratic presidential candidates oppose new federal fossil-fuel leasing, and environmentalists are increasingly mobilizing to keep oil and gas in the ground to fight climate change.
Therein lies the potential problem: Congress is poised to permanently tie the future funding of conservation and recreation to, of all things, fossil-fuel development. That hardly seems like a sensible and forward-looking plan for the 21st century.
But there’s a better way for outdoor recreationists to fund public lands — and that’s to contribute more ourselves. Hunters and anglers do it all the time by paying excise taxes when they purchase ammo, fishing tackle, firearms, boat fuel, and a slew of other gear. The revenues, which added up to more than $1 billion last year, are channeled to state fish and wildlife agencies and dedicated to wildlife conservation. And those funds are on top of the $1.6 billion that came from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses in 2019.
“Outdoor enthusiasts could do a lot more to provide meaningful, long-lasting funding for the recreation opportunities so many of us enjoy.”
In all, these hunter-angler contributions dwarfed the $495 million appropriated to the LWCF last year — and they would still nearly triple the conservation dollars a fully-funded LWCF would provide. It’s not hard to see why other recreationists should follow their lead.
Outdoor recreation is booming. The sector has consistently grown faster than the national economy in recent years. National park visitation is at record levels. If hikers, bikers, climbers, and other outdoor enthusiasts want to ensure reliable funding for the future of our public recreation lands, we should step up and do it ourselves.
What would it take? Maybe not much. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor enthusiasts contribute $887 billion — with a “b” — to the economy each year. Fully funding the LWCF at $900 million per year would amount to just one-tenth of 1 percent of the sector’s total economic contribution.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that — trip and travel costs make up the bulk of the OIA’s estimate — but the point remains: Outdoor enthusiasts could do a lot more to provide meaningful, long-lasting funding for the recreation opportunities so many of us enjoy. The association estimates that $185 billion of the sector’s spending is on gear, accessories and vehicles. A tax of 1 percent on just those items might raise double what fully funding the LWCF can.
That’s one appeal of a “user pays, user benefits” system. Tying funding to the demand and growth of the outdoor industry would mean that recreationists could generate much more than $900 million. If fully funding the LWCF represents “the most significant conservation legislation enacted by Congress in nearly half a century,” as Sen. Lamar Alexander said this week, then imagine how much double that amount could do for outdoor recreation.
The narrow constituency created by a user-based system has other benefits as well. Hunters and anglers have likely gained more clout — not less — by taking a funding path less dependent on politically charged appropriations from Congress. By bringing their own money to the table, hunters and anglers arguably command outsized attention from policymakers compared to non-hunting recreationists.
Expanding the user-pays model isn’t a new idea either. Several states already dedicate a portion of taxes on sporting goods or outdoor gear to recreation-related purposes. Texas, Virginia and Georgia use such revenues to support fish and wildlife habitat, state and local parks or land conservation. In Washington, a legislative proposal would place a two-tenths of 1 percent tax on recreational gear that costs over $200 and devote the revenue to wildlife-related purposes. (In a nod to the contributions already made by sportsmen and -women, anyone who presents a hunting or fishing license would be exempt from the tax.)
There seem to be more calls to adopt a similar approach on a national scale. Groups ranging from the Nature Conservancy to Backcountry Hunters and Anglers to the Center for Western Priorities have voiced support for expanding the pool of recreationists who contribute dedicated funding. A gear tax seems to have gained traction with some public land users and garnered a degree of popular support, too. The LWCF would seem to be a logical place to distribute those revenues to support conservation and promote outdoor recreation across the country.
As recreation and conservation funding realities evolve in the 21st century, public funding streams should evolve along with them. It’s time to borrow a lesson from hunters and anglers and put our money where our mouths — and our boots, skis, bikes and paddles — already are.