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If Not Us, Then Who Pays?

Posted on June 20th, 2018

As the traditional outdoor sports of hunting and fishing decline in participation, there is concern about who is going to pay for the upkeep of our woods, waters and wildlife. Jim DuFresne looks into that issue in the latest Trail Talk blog from MichiganTrailMaps.com and concludes it has to be the rest of us who go outside to play.

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By Jim DuFresne

In February, the Michigan State Waterways Commission, an advisory body to the Department of Natural Resources on issues like the acquisition, development and maintenance of access sites, passed a resolution calling for legislation to implement a $10 yearly registration fee for kayaks, canoes and paddleboards.

Jim DuFresne

The idea sank like a canoe with a two-foot hole in the bow. The immediate outcry from paddlers was so deafening that the commission back off and in April the state Senate’s Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Committee approved a resolution that opposed any registration fee for non-motorized boats.

Not surprising. Anybody with a little institutional memory would have recalled the same idea was proposed in the early 1990s and the outcome was no different. Paddlers were upset with paying a “tax” to enjoy their sport or attaching registration numbers to the side of their kayak. Or having no input on where the registration fees were going or what they were paying for.

Twenty-five years later many of the same concerns popped up on forums and websites about the latest proposal for non-motorized boats.

But at some point paddlers have to ask themselves the ultimate question in this debate . . . who pays?

Who is going to pay to maintain the state’s extensive system of boat launches on the Great Lakes? Or pump out the vault toilets at the popular canoe launch on the South Branch of the Au Sable? Or the conservation officers who are involved in the rescue of paddlers in trouble, including several incidents already this summer?

The DNR budget is currently a mix bag that draws revenue from a variety of user groups including motorized boaters, ORV users, campers and snowmobilers. But traditionally the largest contributors have been hunters and anglers.

Both user groups purchase annual licenses – for in-state anglers it’s $26, for hunters it ranges from $20 for deer to $100 for elk – but they also pay a federal excise tax on all firearms, ammunition, fishing equipment and motorboats they purchase. The federal taxes are then returned to the states in the form of grant funds.

Mountain bikers at Waterloo Recreation Area.

This revenue stream was fine 20 years ago but the demographics of outdoor users in Michigan has changed dramatically since then. Hunting and fishing still account for more than 70,000 jobs and nearly $5 billion in revenue –  about a fourth of the state’s outdoor industry in annual economic impact – according to Bridge Magazine.

But like the rest of the nation, Michigan has seen a steady decline in the number of hunters and, at best, a plateauing in the number of anglers if not a decline as well. From 2009 to 2015, the number of resident hunters in Michigan dropped 10 percent, from 769,875 to 695,747. And they will continue to drop as we become a more urbanized society with fewer opportunities for people to discover the sport of hunting.

Today the growing number of people heading outdoors are off-road bikers, kayakers, wildlife photographers, rail-trail users, hikers and, yes, paddleboarders.

These groups along with many others – morel hunters, birders and wildflower enthusiasts to name a few – pay nothing to enjoy their activities other than an occasional entry fee into a park.

Who pays? Not them.

The DNR recognizes the shift in demographics as does many other groups and trail organizations. There has been a pushed for years by the DNR to increase the number the hunters and anglers with special programs designed for women. This month AARP and Sleepy Hollow State Park teamed up for a series of outdoor clinics for grandparents with their grandkids in tow – two untapped outdoor groups – using hands-on instructions to introduce them to archery, fishing, and birding.

But in the end the groups who need to foot the bill for managing our public land and maintaining outdoor facilities and trails are the groups who are using them.

Although it was poorly handled, that’s the reason for the $10 annual fee for non-motorized boats. Being kicked around right now among trail organizations and the DNR is a voluntary donor program that would allow any trail user to make an annual donation of $25 to support Michigan’s non-motorized trails.

Would you pay $25 a year for the trails you use?

A morel hunter gathering her prize in the woods.

And hunters and anglers have been very vocal for years that a federal excise tax should be added when other outdoor users purchased their required equipment, whether it is mountain bikes, tents, backpacks, binoculars or paddleboards, just as they have to do when they purchase a shotgun or a fly rod.

Why should a morel hunter be allowed to wander state or national forest land and pay nothing for the right to gather those sought-after mushrooms when a waterfowl hunter has to pay $48 in state and federal licenses and stamps to shoot a mallard?

Tough questions. And these discussions are not going away because eventually the ultimate question has to be answered if we want trails and campgrounds and vault toilets at our boat launches.

If we don’t contribute more, then who will?

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