Backpack Tax: Is it Finally Time?

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The backpack tax should not be referred to as a “backpack tax,” Land Tawney says.

Taxes are hated by most people. Backcountry Hunters and Anglers CEO Tawney says that taxing outdoor gear to fund conservation should be unifying. In his view, it should be called the Outdoor Legacy Fund instead. This is a chance for all outdoor enthusiasts to do their part to keep the outdoors safe. The reason is that hunting and fishing license fees and excise taxes can’t keep paying almost half of the costs of protecting the nation’s fish and wildlife, especially when only 4% and 14% of Americans hunt and fish respectively. It’s important to remember that the “backpack tax” or Outdoor Legacy Fund or whatever it’s called is actually a tax-one Tawney believes becomes increasingly important as outdoor participation surges. In addition, he says the discussion is finally picking up steam after decades of fruitless debate.

A Share Greater Than Theirs

Hikers, trail runners, climbers, and mountain bikers were never envisioned as part of our conservation funding system. In fact, it was invented nearly a century ago, well before any of those sports became organized leisure activities. That was when hunters and anglers dominated use of U.S. public lands for recreation.

As wildlife species disappeared throughout the nation in the early 1900s, the hunting community and the surrounding industry banded together to create the Pittman-Robertson Act, which imposed a 10- to 11-percent tax on guns and ammunition, paid by manufacturers, to fund conservation.

Dingell-Johnson passed in 1950, cutting the fishing and boating equipment tax to 3- to 10-percent. In total, about $23 billion in conservation and recreation projects have been funded by these two acts since their inception. However, income from those acts has been declining for decades as hunters age out and new participation lags. Among the nation’s most visible hunters, Randy Newberg hosts Fresh Tracks with Randy Newberg, an online show.

The cost of conservation is increasing more rapidly than the cost of excise taxes [ever could]”, says Newberg. There is a problem with thinking that hunters and anglers can cover the cost of conservation through excise fees and fishing licenses. There’s only one way to get there.”

In the meantime, the nation’s parks and open spaces are flooded with hikers, camping enthusiasts, and other recreationists. Many people have devoted years of their lives to promoting outdoor participation, so this is welcome news. In terms of wildlife conservation, the report comes at a time when more studies reveal the effects of non-consumptive outdoor recreation on wildlife.

The journal Conservation Science and Practice published a meta-analysis in 2019 that found 70 percent of the time, higher levels of recreation negatively impacted the richness and abundance of wildlife. The state’s general fund, lottery funds, and other sources of funding are increasingly stretched by the influx of new users.

At the foot of the Bighorn Mountains, Luke Todd owns the Sports Lure store in Buffalo, Wyoming. During the July weekend of 2020, some estimates estimated that upwards of 35,000 people would visit the Bighorns – about the same population as Wyoming’s third biggest city. Todd says wildlife and fish were affected.

Roads and trails need to be opened more, he says. However, [the outdoors] is a fragile thing.

In order to accommodate more visitors, access needs to be improved; otherwise, access will be restricted. Purchasing new land for this purpose or buying easements to access private parcels to access public land is an expensive undertaking. Therefore, hunters such as Tawney and Newberg contend that everyone should contribute.

Is It, nevertheless, Passable?

This isn’t the first time someone has suggested imposing a backpack fee. The outdoor gear business lobbied to have a provision in the final version of the Conservation and Reinvestment Act that would have imposed taxes on outdoor gear removed in 2000. Over the years, discussions have continued, but no new law has been proposed.

Many outdoor firms, however, are concerned that an additional tax will reduce their revenues—or that they will be obliged to pass the cost on to consumers, raising entry barriers. And, according to Rich Harper, head of government affairs for the Outdoor Industry Association, the financial demands on outdoor businesses have only gotten worse since 2000. Tariffs and municipal and state taxes, many of which were enacted recently, cost the sector billions of dollars each year.

According to Marc Berejka, REI’s director of community and government affairs, the dialogue should be focused on other options. For years, REI has been hostile to the idea of a backpack tax.

Outdoor recreation generates more than $125 billion in tax income at the municipal, state, and federal levels, according to him. To put it another way, the outdoor industry—and, by extension, outdoor consumers—pays a lot of taxes already; it’s time for the feds to catch up. Berejka claims that the government does not spend anywhere near $125 billion on recreation.

Georgia and Texas have also approved measures in recent years to transfer a part of the proceeds from existing sales taxes on outdoor recreation equipment. That money is now put into a fund to assist pay for local and state parks and historic sites, as well as wildlife and clean water protection. Since 1993, Texas has had several versions of the law, but in 2018, the state approved spending $277 million on land conservation, or 89 percent of funds raised from sales taxes on outdoor gear. Instead of imposing a new tax, Berejka believes that states should follow Texas’ model.

Conservation supporters should look first at programmes that already exist but are fully funded, such as the Recreational Trails Program (which utilises gas tax to pay for trails) and the Sport Fish Restoration Fund, according to Jessica Wahl Turner, executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable (which is financed through motorboat fuel and fishing equipment sales and import duties on boats).

However, Tawney believes that passing the buck isn’t enough, and that most outdoor enthusiasts are willing to pay a bag tax—even if they bear some of the burden. “People are willing to do it,” he says, “but businesses are unwilling to have that conversation.”

While the specific details are still being worked out, some industry insiders have suggested a 1% tax, which would bring the price of a $100 pack to $101. A 5% tax, as proposed in the 1990s, would increase that pack to $105. Backpack tax supporters argue that this isn’t a deal-breaker for shoppers. Despite this, Tawney calls for lower tariffs as a strategy to avoid higher expenses. Furthermore, he claims that if more money isn’t allocated to conservation now, states and municipalities may begin charging (or raising) trail and user fees, creating a considerably higher financial barrier for individuals on low incomes.

A tax on outdoor gear, according to Todd, proprietor of Wyoming’s The Sports Lure, is not only required, but also not that big of a deal. His parents opened the company in 1968, and throughout the years, hunters and anglers have proved that they are proud to invest in the supplies that they rely on.

He claims that “[an excise tax] will be relatively unnoticeable to the consumer and dealers.” “I don’t see it as a hindrance.” Plus, he continues, undervaluing rather than overvaluing our fish, wildlife, and natural areas would be worse.

“We have an embarrassment of riches, which we must safeguard.”

Outside Business Journal’s print publication published this storey in the Summer 2021 issue. You can read the entire issue here.

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