A tax on outdoor gear, and, possibly, legalized marijuana and sports gambling, are potential income streams in a new proposal put to Congress this week by the Center for Western Priorities. In a 32-page report, which you can read here, the nonpartisan conservation advocacy group argues for the creation of what it calls the Conservation Trust Fund to meaningfully address, once and for all, the nearly $20 billion shortfall in public lands maintenance needs.
The National Park Service’s $12 billion backlog gets most of the bad press, but the rest of our public lands agencies are in the red too; the US Forest Service, for example, faces its own $5 billion shortfall. The US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management are both roughly $1 billion short of funding their own maintenance programs.
To bridge those gaps, the CWP is thinking creatively. Their new proposal rests heavily on increased royalties imposed on resource extraction from public lands by updating the rates, most of which haven’t changed in decades, that energy companies pay to lease and operate their businesses on public lands. Many oil and gas firms pay as little as $1.50 per acre to lease the land they drill. A similar effort to close loopholes that coal companies use to circumvent royalty payments are included in the report. Royalties on renewable energy sources like solar and wind would also be part of the funding portfolio.
But it’s the tax on outdoor gear that would be the most controversial should Congress take up this funding package.
Hunters and anglers are certainly familiar with paying excise taxes on their gear and equipment, money that gets pumped into conservation programs. The Pittman-Robertson (hunting) and Dingell-Johnson (fishing) acts levy a tax of anywhere from 3-12 percent on gear purchased for hunting or fishing, from bullets to fish hooks to apparel.
A similar tax levied on goods purchased for hiking and camping, sometimes called the “backpack tax,” is a popular bit of discussion in the outdoor community and one that’s controversial. [We spoke with conservationist and hunter Steve Rinella about this subject—you can read that interview here]. For one, camping gear is already expensive, and there are fears small increases in cost could price low-income people out of the market. Also, federal and state income taxes already go toward public lands expenses, so some argue this would be a kind of double taxation. Plus, there are concerns it would be difficult to decide which products ought to fall under a public lands excise tax. Not all backpacking backpacks are used for backpacking, for example, nor are all hiking boots used to hike. The CWP points out that several states have floated the idea of an outdoor gear tax, including Washington, which is considering a tax on outdoor goods priced above $200.
The rise in visitation numbers to public lands, coupled with studies that show Americans spent $185 billion on outdoor gear as recently as 2017, indicate, for the CWP, that there is an exploding market in outdoor recreation that, even with a small excise tax, could go a long way to funding public lands needs. “With the continued growth of outdoor recreation and increased need for funding to maintain and increase access to public lands, it makes sense to explore options for outdoor gear sales to support public land conservation,” the report states.
The most creative thinking about funding public lands comes in the final thought of the report. “Ensuring adequate funding for public land management and conservation will require creativity, including exploring funding streams outside of public land users,” the report states. Noting that several states have legalized marijuana and are beginning to enjoy tax windfalls from the new market, and that legalized sports betting is poised to take off across the country, new, um, interesting tax sources are on the horizon.
The report makes clear it in no way is meant to supercede the Land Water Conservation Fund, but would piggyback on it and, since the LWCF is capped at $900 million annually, regardless of inflation, the Conservation Trust Fund could go at least part ways to bring that $900 million in line with today’s actual needs.
Top photo: NPS