The Position of the American Recreation Coalition on the "Teaming with Wildlife" Initiative

On May 14, 1996, the American Recreation Coalition’s Recreation Policy Forum considered a proposal developed by the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (the "International") to raise funds for state-level wildlife management, education and recreation programs through an excise tax on outdoor recreation equipment and certain other goods. Representatives of the International presented their proposal, known as "Teaming with Wildlife," to a group of approximately 30 ARC members and guests. A lengthy, broad-ranging question and answer period followed. After the presentation and questions, ARC members developed the following policy recommendation:

Parks, playgrounds, public forests and preserves, wild and scenic rivers, trails, greenways, wildlife refuges and recreation centers--together they form an infrastructure to provide healthy, educational, uplifting outlets for millions of Americans’ recreational pursuits. These resources contribute to the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities. They create jobs and yield economic benefits. They bring people together, breaking down economic, racial and geographic barriers, and enhance family and community relationships. They protect species and habitat as well as precious cultural resources. They are integral threads of the American fabric.

The recreation community has a responsibility to protect the invaluable legacy of our national, regional and local outdoor treasures and to add new facets. In recent years, the recreation community has established important new efforts involving trails and rivers, scenic byways and greenways, rails-to-trails conversions and heritage corridors, and improvements in access to public lands and waters.

Despite these advances, the recreation and conservation needs of our nation are intense and growing. High levels of visitation and limited budgets threaten environmental damage at some of our most loved national sites. Development reduces open spaces near our cities -- places already least endowed with public lands. Lack of interpretative services squanders precious educational opportunities during the estimated two billion annual visits to federal recreation sites. Competing economic priorities tear at our traditional valuation of natural resource protection. Crime and environmental degradation restrict access of many urbanites, especially children, to local recreational facilities and natural areas. A fee system that fails to recognize that Americans are willing to pay for good services and facilities starves agencies financially, making them rely upon a political allocation of funding. The result is that 40% of all visitors to national forests today receive experiences below the agency’s own standards for acceptable quality -- and forces the agency to predict a growth in that percentage of poorly served visitors. And in the face of growing numbers of trail enthusiasts, the network of trails on federal lands is declining in quantity and quality.

We need to be innovative, decisive and collaborative in our efforts to address these needs. The wholly compatible goals of protecting our nation’s natural resources and ensuring opportunities for our citizens to recreate in a safe and healthy manner must be integrated. Any effort to address our nation’s conservation and recreation needs must be comprehensive and balanced. We cannot approach this challenge in a piecemeal fashion.

The recreation community is strongly supportive of the goal of a healthy and diverse wildlife population and habitat. In addition to the improved quality that wildlife can bring to the outdoor recreation experience, we recognize the basic conservation imperative of protecting habitat and ecosystems. Reflecting this commitment, many of America’s outdoor companies already contribute significantly to a wide variety of conservation initiatives nationally and locally.

Numerous programs initiated by and/or actively supported by the recreation community enhance wildlife protection. The Conservation Reserve Program, created in the 1985 Farm Bill, has set aside millions of acres of important wildlife habitat and has boosted bird populations dramatically. The National Scenic Byway Program and the STP Enhancement Requirements, created under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, have funneled millions of dollars into easements and local land use planning efforts which will protect open space and corridors which support wildlife habitat and migration as well as human transportation needs. The Rivers and Trails Conservation Program of the National Park Service has had dramatic impact on local communities from one end of the nation to the other, shaping growth and protecting valued community features, including wildlife habitat. The Land and Water Conservation Fund has combined offshore oil and gas revenues and state and local funding to acquire more than $10 billion in new public lands, used for recreation and conservation purposes alike. The Wallop-Breaux Fund and the Pittman-Robertson Fund have also provided millions of dollars for land acquisition, habitat improvements and conservation and environmental education efforts. And presently, the recreation community is leading efforts to reform recreation fee policies in an effort to ensure an increase of hundreds of millions of dollars annually in the operating budgets of federal land managing agencies.

We realize that funding for resource protection and recreation is limited. We recognize the need to develop long-term strategic approaches to funding requirements for recreation and conservation. We participated in and support the recommendations of the 1987 President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors and the 1994 National Park Service Advisory Board’s review of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Both studies called for a national leadership role on recreation and conservation matters but emphasized the importance of state- and community-level efforts reflecting specialized needs and opportunities. Successful state level approaches like sales tax set-asides in Missouri and Texas attract our attention. The Great Outdoors Colorado program, funded through lottery proceeds, also appears to be working. We also favor, and would be willing to support through communications assistance, voluntary efforts to raise funding for wildlife and conservation programs including, but not limited to, special license plates, income tax "check-offs" and conservation stamps.

ARC supports recreation use fees that are equitable, understandable to those paying, cost-efficient to administer, and dedicated to supporting the programs and facilities for which they were collected. Those charged with paying a user fee must be provided a direct and identifiable service. We support the enactment of H.R. 2107, a bill to expand greatly the collection of recreation use fees across all federal lands, because it reflects these principles.

The concept of a user fee is not in question; rather the issue is what constitutes an appropriate user fee and where and how collected funds are spent. The "Teaming with Wildlife" proposal fails to meet the recreation community’s criteria for an acceptable user fee. The mechanism of levying an excise tax on a loosely-defined list of "outdoor" products is not compatible with the philosophy of a true and fair user fee. The proposed excise tax mechanism fails to link those who pay with those who use the resource. In context of the targeted "outdoor" products listed in the proposal, too often those who pay will not be the same as those who use the resource. By definition, a "user fee" becomes simply a specialized tax if a substantial portion of "users" do not pay, or do not pay proportional to the benefits they derive, and a different substantial portion of those who pay do not derive any benefits. That is the case with the proposed Teaming with Wildlife initiative.

The recreation community also is troubled by an excise tax as a fee collection mechanism because too much leakage can occur. Taxes imposed at the manufacturers’ first point of sale will be marked up along the stream of commerce along with the price of goods. This means in practice that the consumer could pay considerably more out of his/her pocket than will be returned to the resource. Obviously, any mechanism will carry certain costs of collection, but the collection costs of an excise tax are likely to be particularly high.

Administratively, it will be exceedingly difficult to apply the tax equitably across all the product lines to be affected. The experience of the Wallop-Breaux tax documents how imported product values may be manipulated to effect a financial disadvantage for domestic producers. Given the fluid nature of the list of taxable products, as well as the difficulty in defining some products, there will inevitably be efforts to avoid the tax through creative classification of products. (Hiking boots could become "casual footwear," for example, or backpacks could become "bookbags.") We fear that the "Teaming" tax system would create artificial winners and losers in the marketplace, based not on economic forces but rather on governmental regulations.

It is likely some, probably small, manufacturers will bear an excessive administrative burden in trying to comply with the paperwork of the tax, while other small enterprises may fall through the cracks and pay no tax.

Perhaps most importantly, the government-imposed tax may serve as a disincentive for companies to continue to develop voluntary, private initiatives that are emerging in today’s marketplace. Successful cause-related marketing where portions of product sales are donated to the protection of parks, trails, rivers and other resources offer tremendous opportunities for sizable, voluntary contributions. These initiatives can be extremely flexible, targeted and attractive to customers. Customers directly see and understand the relationship between purchase of a product and support for a resource. We favor allowing potential competitive advantages within the private sector to drive innovation in attracting donated funds.

Beyond the inequity and inefficiency associated with the proposed tax, ARC believes that the "Teaming" proposal inappropriately favors state-level wildlife protection to the virtual exclusion of most other basic recreation needs such as visitor services, trail construction, road access, campground maintenance and the like. While wildlife diversity is an important value, basic recreation services should not be given short shrift. Recreation use fees ultimately should benefit recreation users. The relative success of the Dingell-Johnson, Pittman-Robertson and Wallop-Breaux taxes make this case -- fishing and hunting opportunities have demonstrably improved with the funds provided. It is debatable how much of the "Teaming" excise taxes would actually be available to improve the recreation infrastructure, given the numerous wildlife management objectives that have been identified. The wildlife focus of "Teaming" leaves little for recreation, calling into question the applicability of the aforementioned taxes as valid "models" for this proposal.

ARC does not support the Teaming with Wildlife excise tax. While perhaps noble in intent, it is flawed in design and scope, and will not accomplish our goals. It is the wrong tool for the task. The recreation community does pledge its efforts to pursuing comprehensive conservation programs which will produce quality outdoor experiences for all and which sustain the ecosystems which are vital to environmental quality.

Version 3: May 28, 1996