WASHINGTON, D.C. - About a decade ago, wildlife officials in Idaho began to realize that there were more wolverines in the Sawtooth Mountain area than they had thought.


How many more and how should they be managed? Well, that would take some study, which costs money. And as is the case in many states, Idaho's Fish and Game Department can't just spend money as it sees fit. Its money comes from fishing and hunting sources and is earmarked for matters concerning fish which are fished and animals which are hunted. Wolverines are not included.





"We did get some federal money, and that triggered a full-blown study," said Wayne Melquist, the non-game wildlife manager for the department. "But in a study like this, you spend years just getting baseline information. We couldn't keep the project going."


For the nonce, then, no one will know, among other things, whether the increasing popularity of helicopter skiing interferes with the survival of wolverines, who like to give birth in the same kind of terrain attractive to the skiers.


Idaho is hardly unique here. The way things work, if a species isn't hunted or fished - and the vast majority are not - it isn't protected or studied unless it becomes endangered. Now that more people wander into the woods to see animals than to hunt them, it was inevitable that somebody would come up with a plan to raise money on behalf of all the species which are not found between the sights of a rifle or at the end of a monofilament line.


Somebody has. The plan is conservative, first because it would raise the money in small increments, and second because it is modeled after the excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment, which are both effective and popular.


Indeed, so benign is this plan, so mainstream are its purposes and its inventors, that it has the backing of liberals and conservatives, the blessings of environmental organizations and businesses, the support of bird lovers and hunters who only half-jokingly brag of their "radicals and rednecks' coalition.


Thus armed, its chances of making it through Congress are ... well, not too good. Bearing the unfortunate nickname, "Teaming with Wildlife" (worse, it was not a 6-year-old but a highly paid public-relations firm that dreamed that one up), the proposal would add a small charge to the cost of bird-seed, kayaks, hiking boots and the like, raising $350 million a year for states to spend on wildlife conservation and outdoor recreation. How much of an increase this would be can be seen from the Idaho situation.





"We now get about $340,000 a year" for non-game wildlife, Melquist said, some from the federal excise taxes, some from a voluntary check-off on the state income tax and some from those vanity "nature lover" license plates now available in 38 states. Idaho's share of "Teaming with Wildlife" money would be $3.9 million.


Following the pattern of the hunting and fishing equipment excise-tax revenues, this money would be funneled through the federal Fish and Wildlife Services to the state fish and game departments. This explains why the lobbying group for those departments, the International Association of Fish and Wldlife Agencies, is leading the fight for the proposal.


It also explains some of the opposition from the left-of-center of the environmental movement. Some environmentalists have mixed feelings about state fish and game departments, which are dominated by officials committed to harvesting wildlife as well as conserving it. This objection may reflect carefully considered policy differences. It may, on the other hand, reflect snobbery.


Doug Inkley of the National Wildlife Federation points out that the state officials wouldn't have a free hand in spending the money. "The states would have to have an approved plan and come up with a 30 percent match," Inkley said.


The more important opposition comes from some businesses and from the political zeitgeist, which is horrified by one word, a word that the supporters of "Teaming with Wildlife" try their best to avoid. When you impose a 5 percent fee on a mountain bike or a pair of snowshoes, you are not increasing the cost very much. Whoever can afford $200 for a pair of snow-shoes can afford $210.


Still, there is no denying what that extra $10 is. It's a ... it's a ... well, it's a tax.





"It's a user fee! It's a user fee!" proclaim the plan's sponsors. But even if they are right, a user fee compelled by act of Congress is a tax. The political quandary presented herewith became evident last September when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt told a convention in Omaha that he thought "Teaming with Wildlife" was an interesting idea.


A wire service reporter, either careless or zealous, wrote that the Clinton administration had proposed a new tax, a factoid (that's what we in the news racket call an un-factual fact) on which Bob Dole quickly pounced, and about which Babbitt and the White House quickly issued clarifications. Under the version of intellectual honesty which prevails among campaign consultants, any congressman who votes for this plan can expect to see television ads in 1998 proclaiming, "Rep. Blatt voted to raise your taxes." That's why, despite the support of the Sierra Club, the Bass Anglers Sportsman's Society and Pet Food Warehouse, "Teaming with Wildlife" so far lacks a congressional sponsor.


Besides, there is a legitimate debate about how much of this tax is really a user fee. "Teaming with Wildlife" would tax cameras and film, whether used for nature photos or for baby pictures in the nursery. It would tax recreational and sports utility vehicles, which are advertised for their ability to climb logging roads but often used by mothers taking the kids to the dentist.


And truth to tell, even a lot of outdoor recreation equipment isn't used for outdoor recreation. Myrna Johnson of the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America, the lobbying group for the big outdoor stores, pointed out that there are more backpacks on school kids than on wilderness trekkers, and "there are people wearing hiking boots all over the Washington Metro."


Johnson also doubted that the price increase would be as small as the tax, which would be imposed on the manufacturer. "It gets built into the price as it moves up the line," she said. "The typical way a product is marked up is that everyone takes a percent of price."


So there are legitimate questions of equity involved. There is also economic self-interest. The outdoor stores obviously feel that any price increase, even a moderate one shared by all competitors, would suppress sales. They could be right. On the other hand, that's what many of the fishing equipment companies feared when their excise tax was imposed in 1950. They were wrong.


And in matters of equity, this, too, should be part of the equation: Outdoor recreationists - which includes me and perhaps, dear reader, you, and their suppliers - Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean and Coleman and REI and the rest - have been government subsidized for decades. Had not governments on all levels spent billions buying parkland, maintaining trails, cleaning rivers, and preserving species there would be far fewer hikers, bikers, birders and kayakers, hence fewer customers at all trendy stores, buying all those (often over-priced) goods.


How those stores and their customers should begin to pay their fair share is a legitimate question. That they should so begin seems obvious. If "Teaming with Wildlife" serves as nothing more than the opening of this discussion, its sponsors may be forgiven their bad pun.





Jon Margolis is a veteran political reporter who writes from Vermont.