by Molly Absolon, Jackson Hole News & Guide
I’ve never seen as many people on the Glory boot track as I saw this past weekend. An unbroken line of hikers strung down the mountainside, and the parking lot overflowed with vehicles. The numbers drove home just how many outdoor recreationists there are these days.
I tried to come up with a guess-timate on just how much money each of us carried or wore up the track. Let’s say our skis cost $700 and our boots were $500. Dynafit or a comparable pair of light alpine touring bindings run anywhere from $300 to more than $500, so let’s just say $350 is a reasonable average. Backpacks cost around $100. Ski pants $150. Jackets $200. I could keep going but don’t really need to. My point is clear. Each of us has at least a couple thousand dollars invested in our backcountry ski getup, and there were hundreds of us out there on this weekend. So just for fun let’s say 500 people climbed Glory. If each of us had spent $2,000 on our gear that’s $1 million total, and I’d guess that’s an underestimate.
The point is that outdoor recreation is big business. To illustrate that look at the decision by the Outdoor Retailers Show to pull out of Salt Lake City after 20 years in Utah. The decision will cost Salt Lake City $45 million in lost revenue. That’s a big blow, and that’s the point. The Outdoor Industry Association wants to throw its weight around. After years of being pushed aside by the louder voices and deeper pockets of oil and gas, coal and other extractive industries, the outdoor industry now thinks it has grown enough to deserve a seat at the table when it comes to deciding the future of our public lands.
The fact of the matter is that it’s about time the outdoor recreation industry stepped up and took a stand on issues affecting the lands on which we pursue our sports. I used to be the communications manager for a conservation group in Wyoming. We were focused on protecting the Wyoming Range from oil and gas leasing at that time. The voice that had the most power for conservationists at the bargaining table was that of the “hook and bullet” crowd. Hunters and anglers were respected and listened to. Why? Because hunters and anglers are willing to pay to play. In fact they have contributed more than $300 million to federal coffers through self-imposed excise taxes on firearms, ammunition and fishing equipment. Those dollars have been used to help fund wildlife conservation efforts. They’ve also given the hook and bullet crowd credibility and clout.
Outdoor recreationists don’t have that same clout though our numbers are growing exponentially. I don’t have any statistics to back up that observation, but all of us who’ve lived in the area more than five years have anecdotal evidence of the growth. Yet despite this increase you don’t see us at the bargaining table when it comes to federal land management decisions. But we should be, especially in the Jackson area, where outdoor recreation is ingrained in our psyche.
Forrest McCarthy has been thinking about this issue a lot. We got into this topic on a skin track one day and subsequently he has shared background information on one potential solution: a 1 percent excise tax on outdoor equipment and clothing that would be set aside for conservation.
The so-called backpack tax is not a new idea, nor is it Forrest’s, but he’s a fan. It was first proposed in the 1990s, but the Outdoor Industry Association shot it down. McCarthy says that the industry’s complaints about the tax were legitimate, but he disagrees with their decision to kill rather than reform it. He believes we need to be paying our way like hunters and anglers and motorized recreationists (who pay an excise tax on gas that is used to support motorized trails). Because these groups pay into the system they get something in return. Right now outdoor recreationists aren’t really paying into the system, and it shows. We don’t get a lot of respect from our government so our voices often go unheard and our needs unmet.
You can argue that all of us already pay taxes on our gear, and we do. There are sales taxes and import tariffs on outdoor gear, but those taxes go into the general fund and don’t have any direct effect on conservation or public lands. We also pay fees for a variety of things like entering a national park or getting a permit to float a river, but hunters, anglers and motorized recreationists pay user fees, too, so you can’t really count them. It’s not like we’re doing anything extra for the lands we love.
People also criticize the backpack tax because it makes gear more expensive and, therefore, less affordable for any but the rich elite. I understand that argument to an extent, but don’t think it holds water in the long run. If you are paying an extra 1 percent on your $700 skis, that’s $7. That’s not going to make or break your decision to make that purchase. Furthermore, used gear would not be taxed and, therefore, would continue to be an option for people who can’t afford top-of-the-line equipment.
Finally, in the ’90s, when the backpack tax was first shot down, the outdoor industry argued that it included items that weren’t used for outdoor recreation. Again, this argument seems like one that can be surmounted with a little thought. After all, most of us know the difference between a backpack intended for books and one you use for skiing.
I think we need to put our money where our mouth is. I applaud the decision to pull the OR show out of Salt Lake, although it’s unfortunate that businesses in the area will suffer. But that’s the way sanctions work. They are meant to hurt. They are meant to make a change. Taxes also hurt. No one likes to give more money to the federal government, but if we want to protect the lands that give us joy and freedom, we should be willing to pay.