Where We Stand: OIA on an Excise Tax and Conservation Funding

Some sportsmen and conservationists suggest that the outdoor recreation industry isn’t paying its fair share of the conservation bill—an accusation that is not just unfair, it’s patently untrue.

By Alex Boian July 13, 2016

There has been, at times, an unfortunate and unnecessary divide in the outdoor community between sportsmen—hunters and anglers, conservationists and other segments of the industry. Although our outdoor pursuits vary, our core motivations are the same: to get off the couch, get into nature and protect the places we love. We have more convergent values than divergent ones, and we agree that national public lands and waters are among America’s most valuable shared resources. In fact, we have all come together on many issues, and I’m happy to call sportsmen our allies in the fight to #protectpubliclands.

We have more convergent values than divergent ones, and we agree that national public lands and waters are among America’s most valuable shared resources.

We Pay Our Fair Share

Unfortunately, a few members of our community remain at odds over the true sources and impacts of conservation funding. Some incorrectly and unfairly suggest that the outdoor recreation industry isn’t paying its fair share of the conservation bill.

Those people point to the revenue generated from hunting and fishing licenses, federal bird hunting stamps, motorboat fuel sales tax and two excise taxes—Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson (see “Excise Taxes Explained” sidebar). Sportsmen call these “pay to play” taxes. Because there aren’t equivalent excise taxes on outdoor recreation equipment and activities, some have concluded, inaccurately, that the rest of us are “playing without paying.” They believe sportsmen are paying a disproportionate amount of the conservation bill, and they suggest outdoor recreation products should incur excise taxes in order to bring equity to our industry’s contributions.

But that argument overlooks the real and significant contributions outdoor industry brands make by paying exceptionally high and disproportionate import tariffs—some as high as 40 percent—on everything from apparel and equipment to footwear and backpacks. (In comparison, most hunting products are imported duty-free. The few hunting products that are taxed face, on average, about a 4-percent rate.)

But that argument overlooks the real and significant contributions outdoor industry brands make by paying exceptionally high and disproportionate import tariffs—some as high as 40 percent—on everything from apparel and equipment to footwear and backpacks.

How The Dollars Are Divided

Tariffs are taxes that are paid by outdoor gear and apparel manufacturers. The cost of those tariffs are compounded 300 to 400 percent as the products move from port to wholesale to retail and are subsequently passed on to retailers and then to consumers. Incidentally, consumers of those products also pay state and local sales taxes at the register. The outdoor industry and our customers pay about $700 million annually in import tariffs.

Here’s where the dollar distributions differ: “Pay-to-play” dollars are directed by the Secretary of the Interior to the states for specific projects, such as hunter safety training, research, and species and habitat restoration.

Conversely, tariff revenue from outdoor products (along with billions of dollars from other sources) fill the coffers of the U.S. General Treasury. Congress then appropriates a percentage of those dollars to the Department of the Interior (DOI), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and other federal land and water management agencies. Despite the massive revenue from outdoor product tariffs that goes into the treasury, Congress allocates a relatively small amount back out to recreation and conservation projects that benefit all outdoorists, including hunters and anglers. Those projects include wildlife and habitat rehabilitation as well as trail development, urban parks, land and water conservation, and other programs to support the experiences of people who want to be outside.

No New Taxes!

OIA works hard to bring import tariffs and their compounding costs down in order to make outdoor products more affordable for a broader diversity of people. Assessing new excise taxes on outdoor recreation products is likely to make many of these products prohibitively expensive for many current and potentially new outdoorists.

Recently, a Blue Ribbon Panel convened by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies explored alternative funding sources—including an excise tax—for conservation and recreation. The panel, chaired by conservationist and founder of Bass Pro Shops John Morris and former Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal, ultimately decided an excise tax was unreasonable and could not be effectively administered. Instead, they called on Congress to “dedicate up to $1.3 billion annually in existing revenue from the development of energy and mineral resources on federal lands and waters to the Wildlife Conservation Restoration Program.”

Let’s Incentivize Not Penalize

Sportsmen and the outdoor industry have made great progress and achieved great success when we’ve worked side by side, as one community, on issues related to conservation, recreation access, permitting and programing. Shouldn’t we continue to work together to incentivize healthy outdoor lifestyles and promote the use of outdoor products by bringing costs down?

Now is the time to come together with one voice to tell Congress and leaders in state houses across the United States to protect and adequately fund our public lands, waters and wildlife, and ensure access to the diverse outdoor activities they support. Together, we can fight for an increased investment that will grow the outdoor recreation economy and build healthy communities of hunters, fishers and other outdoorists across the United States.

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