Taxing Birdwatchers

January 25, 1995|By EIRIK A. T. BLOM

BEL AIR — Bel Air. -- Nothing irritates a hunter or fisherman quite so much as seeing a birdwatcher wandering happily through a wildlife-management area or standing on the shore of a lake gawking at ducks. Somehow it just doesn't seem right that this, this . . . birdwatcher is reveling in the same nature as hunters and fishermen and not paying his fair share. Birdwatchers, butterfly chasers, wildflower sniffers, hikers and all those other nature nuts are freeloaders and should be taxed, just like hunters and fishermen.

The remarkably silly and somewhat mean-spirited notion that birdwatchers and other people who observe nature should be taxed is gaining momentum. Several states have adopted or are considering licenses for birdwatchers, bills pushed by outdoor recreational organizations. They argue that taxing birdwatchers is only equitable.

If you don't bother to think it through, and if you aren't a birdwatcher, the argument is attractive. Last year the federal government returned about $342 million to the states for managing, propagating and preserving game species. The money comes from hunting and fishing licenses and from an 11 percent federal surtax on guns, ammunition, fishing rods, reels, sinkers and other ''sporting'' equipment.

By contrast, the federal government gave the states only $1 million for nongame, nonendangered species, a paltry sum. The figures don't lie: Birdwatchers and their brethren aren't carrying their end of the load.

Sportsmen have noticed the inequity and are planning to do something about it. The International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies is spearheading an effort to persuade the federal government to levy a tax on bird seed, bird houses, bird feeders, binoculars and related equipment. They are using the 342-to-1 argument in the hope that it will cure legislators of their tax phobia. The same thing was tried more than a decade ago with the Nongame Act of 1980, but Congress removed the taxes before passage.

The hole in their argument is big enough for an eagle to sail through. The reason hunters and fishermen pay license fees and special taxes is that they are consumers of wildlife. They don't just look, they take and what they take the government has to put back.

There are large state and federal bureaucracies whose sole job is to put back what sportsmen take out -- streams and reservoirs to be stocked with fish, turkeys and grouse to be reintroduced, deer herds to be managed, waterfowl to be propagated and released, land to be purchased and managed.

State fish and game agencies are huge subsidies for people who hunt and fish. All of this is expensive, and it is only fair that the beneficiaries of the programs should pay a substantial part of the cost.

Birdwatchers make no demands on the public treasury. Nothing they do requires the government to spend a penny, and all they take from the environment is memories. When the government gets in the business of taxing memories, some of us are going to have quite a bill, and the apocalypse of Big Brother socialism that so many groups are hysterical about will have actually arrived.

Licensing birdwatchers is not only ridiculous, it is impractical. Who has to sign up?

Will you need a license to stop and wonder at a flock of migrating geese on an October morning? Will you have to take a day off and go stand in line at some licensing agency before you can show your kids the Baltimore Orioles nesting in your back yard? Will the police conduct spot checks? ''Hey, lady, we have photos of you watching that sparrow! Let's see your license.'' The more you think about it, the sillier it gets.

If a license is a bad idea, a surtax on birdseed, bird feeders and bird houses is stupid. People who put up bird feeders are putting, not taking. They increase wildlife, not decrease it. Instead of being taxed, they ought to be subsidized. Feeding birds reduces the risk that species will become threatened or endangered, potentially saving the taxpayers millions of dollars.

If that argument seems like a bit of a stretch, consider the case of the eastern bluebird. A quarter-century ago this was a bird in trouble, declining steadily throughout most of its range. If the trend had not been reversed, a lot of tax money would have been spent saving the bluebird.

It didn't happen because tens of thousands of Americans put up bluebird houses, all at their own expense. They mounted the largest and most successful private restoration project in history. As a result, bluebird numbers are at an all-time high. The government will probably never have to spend a dime on bluebirds.

Even if the Congress lost its mind and imposed the tax, what is it going to spend the money on? It is not fair to spend it on game species -- this is a tax on people who don't hunt or fish, and if they do, they are already taxed for the privilege. Spending it on game species would amount to double jeopardy and a massive subsidy for a special-interest group.

You could spend it on endangered species, except to be fair, if you used birdwatcher taxes you would also have to use the money raised from sportsmen. The problem with the tax is that we don't need much money for nongame, nonendangered species. How, exactly, are we going to spends hundreds of millions of dollars on cardinals, mockingbirds and blue jays? And why?

While Congress is considering this harebrained proposal, there are some other figures to keep in mind. According to the organizations pushing the tax, 39 percent of Americans watch, feed, photograph or otherwise interact with nature without hunting. Conservative estimates put the number of people who feed birds each winter at around 25 million. There are fewer than 3 million licensed hunters.

That is at least ten to one advantage for the nonconsumers, and politicians should remember that birds of a feather flock, and vote, together.

Eirik A. T. Blom, needless to say, is a birdwatcher.

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