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