Backpack Tax Revision: The Error in My Ways

This is a follow up piece to a previous article I wrote about a supposed “Backpacking Tax.” To better understand my ramblings I would recommend you check out that post first.  


First and foremost, I must admit an error in my previous title.  While at the time the title “Backpacking Tax: Is it Time Hikers Pay Their Fair Share?” was catchy, it really missed the mark.  The excise tax I proposed would in almost no way be assessed on the hiking public.  This is a specific tax that is levied on the companies that manufacture or import outdoor equipment.  If the companies in turn increase their price that is a good sign to support a different company.  


Not surprisingly, my last article sparked some controversy and even a few spicy comments.  While it is not my intention to be controversial, I will never shy away from telling you my honest thoughts.  Also, I will be the first to admit my bias; I am typically a single issue voter based on conservation. If a political figure dedicated themselves to protecting and improving public lands, and they don’t seem too crooked, they usually get my vote. In addition most of my childhood heroes stood for conservation.  This leads me down a specific path of thinking that does not always sit well with some folks.  I think it would do some justice if I explained my position in more detail.  You’re still free to call me a stubborn dunce, and in doing so my wife would probably agree with you.  


Shaped by Conservation Heroes 


My personal philosophy and perception of public lands has been molded in the image of history’s greatest conservationists.  The words of Leopuld, Abbey, Emerson, Thoreau, and Rinella spoke above all others.  These works guided and shaped my outlook into a simplistic and pragmatic view.  With much credit to these men the North American Model of Wildlife Management was born and thrives today.  The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation falls under a broader doctrine known as the Public Trust Doctrine.  The Public Trust Doctrine is defined by Cornell Law as, “The principle that certain natural and cultural resources are preserved for public use, and that the government owns and must protect and maintain these resources for the public’s use.” 


Public Trust Doctrine 


The first seed of this model was planted by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1821 stating that navigable waterways were the property of the public. This ruling was strengthened by the Supreme Court in 1842 with Martin vs. Waddell ruled the public had a common right to fish public waterways.  Further rulings in 1896 claimed “Sovereign Ownership” of wildlife.  Without going into the nitty gritty (there are entire books on the subject), this was the idea that wildlife was owned by the public.  This seems like common knowledge today but this was a radical concept for the 19th century. Remember at this time in history wildlife was being decimated at alarming rates.  Land was seen as a right, destined to be exploited.


This new sentiment remained the same even when this decision was eventually overturned, more so transferred, in 1979. Nearly 80 years later it was ruled ownership belonged to the individual states instead of the general public. This essentially was a change from federal ownership to the state level.  A minor change in semantics but still reinforcing our unique model of conservation.   


So this was another long winded explanation with intent to portray how wildlife and public spaces are viewed by the letter of the law.  It was clearly outlined that public spaces were to be owned by the public exclusively.  Not by the king, or even the government, but instead every tree, rock, deer, and giardia laden stream belongs to every citizen.  With that, these spaces are the collective population’s to care for and manage.  


“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us.  When we see it as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” -Aldo Leopuld 


Who are the real winners when it comes to public lands? There are quite a few but let’s start with the obvious.  Odds are, if you’re reading on The Trek you have a hankering for the outdoors.  This means you have probably enjoyed public spaces and will continue to do so.  We can throw that one in the win column.  Second comes wildlife, this is a given but when wild areas stay wild the flora and fauna also thrive.  Next comes arguably the biggest winner, the outdoor industry.  


Ask yourself, when was the last time you bought a piece of outdoor equipment to use on private land? When was the last time you camped on private land? While this may be possible for some, the overwhelming majority of outdoor equipment is purchased with the use on public lands in mind.  This is all fine and well until you realize the companies that produce this gear turn insane profits, with no real obligation to give back to the lands that support their gear.  I always turn back to the almighty Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson acts for reference here.  Not every fishing rod is intended for use on public waters but in general most are.  With this it’s not the one guy or gal who uses private waters that is penalized.  It is instead the company that makes their profit off the larger group of public waters anglers.   


According to the IMARC Group the outdoor gear industry was valued at 4.4 Billion in 2020.  


Mind you, this was a year with many retailers closed and supply shortages galore.  IBIS World estimates the industry at 6.8 Billion for 2022 and an annual increase of 7.6% for the upcoming years.  In my previous article I think I did a poor job of explaining this relationship.  I led many to believe this was a tax targeting people who buy outdoor gear. This was not my intention.  Instead I think the “Backpacking Tax” is a way to ensure companies play a part in protecting the spaces they profit off of.  


At the end of the day someone has to foot the bill for enhancing conservation.  To me, an excise tax on outdoor equipment is an appropriate solution to augment taxpayer dollars. Let’s look at the Dingell Johnson Act, for reference. When it comes to items subject to the excise tax think of everything an angler could need, boats, outboard engines, rods, reels, tackle, and even boat gas.  Without public waters your average angler would have nowhere to use this gear and would never get into angling.  Instead the companies that are supported by anglers are liable to also support the waters that anglers need.  In summary, the company pays for clean waters, the angler buys gear from the company to go fish the clean waters, the company makes more money to clean more waterways.  This is an oversimplification but you see what I am getting at here.  


This is very similar to how the outdoor industry could benefit from an excise tax.  I buy a pack from ULA, ULA pays into the “Backpacking Tax Fund,” the fund goes on to pay for burn recovery so that section of the PCT is open to hike, and I use my ULA pack on the PCT.  This revenue stream has a possible compounding effect as well. If there are more outdoor recreation areas and opportunities more gear will be sold and in turn more money raised.  This opportunity has the potential to lead to completion of trail systems, improved facilities, and better outdoor recreation education for generations to come.  


Playing the Long Game


With the passing of the Great American Outdoors Act in 2019 by a count of 310-107 (about as bipartisan as things get now-a-days) the Land and Water Conservation Fund was finally funded.  The Land and Water Conservation Fund was an act passed in 1964 and is a tax on offshore oil drilling in order to fund parks and wildlife.  Since this act was passed in 1964 it was only ever fully funded for 1 year.  The other 55 years congress has opted to push the money elsewhere. This had led to a severe backlog of maintenance by the Forest Service and Park Department.  This backlog will finally be cleared due to the Outdoors Act guaranteeing permanent funding.  This will add about 900 million annually to fund conservation.  In my opinion the most important part about a backpack tax fund, unlike the Land and Water Fund, is the guarantee that funds actually go to conservation.  There is legal backing as well, it would be illegal to transfer the funds into any other budget.  


Why am I going to great lengths explaining an act that already funds wildlife? This is to prove the “we need less taxes” argument doesn’t really hold up here.  On a basic level I would agree with you, my political views tend to lean Libertartian.  However, that proverbial ship sailed long ago.  We, in some way or another, end up paying for many of these conservation efforts without ever knowing it.  If you have purchased gas in any capacity since 2019 congratulations, you have already been paying for conservation. This would be one direct fund that guarantees proper payout for out public lands.  


Passing the Buck 


A valid concern is companies passing on the cost to the consumer.  I discussed this a bit in my last article but I don’t think I did it enough justice.  The main counterpoint, based on my last article, is hikers are concerned they will be paying more for gear because companies will jack up the prices to keep their margins.  Honestly, this is 100% reasonable.  There is no shortage of companies passing on their conservation obligations to the consumer like the whole “you have to donate in order to order off our site” gig.  


That being said, I tried to find one example of companies raising prices in response to Pittman Robertson or Dingell Johnson and I couldn’t find one.  Remember, the P-R and D-J both charge upwards of 10% compared to my randomly proposed 5%.  It was quite the contrary.  Most of the major manufactures were actually on board with the excise tax as they saw it as an investment for the future.  


Let’s take it back to 1937 for a minute. 


Wildlife in North America is in a bad way, turkeys were on the brink of elimination and elk and deer were wildly over populated due to destruction of predator populations.  The firearm and hunting industry saw it as an ultimatum; fund conservation in order to restore wildlife, or let wildlife collapse and soon they would not have a market to sell to.  Even today the National Shooting Sports Collective, who represent over 8,000 manufactures in the firearm industry, strongly advocate for the P-R and go so far as to recommend new projects to use the funds on.  


I am speculating a bit and, probably sounding like an alarmist, but there are serious predicaments the outdoor industry is faced with.  Climate change and the rampant fires that sweep the west annually top the list. Furthermore, backlogged park maintenance, trail maintenance, and routing of new trails also have significant costs.   I fear that if some of these issues are not tackled soon they may reach a tipping point that will drastically change our interaction with our landscape.  


The Next Generation


Another good call out for this proposed tax would be the education component.  Annually, a slice of the P-R fund is carved out to support hunter/shooter education courses.  A similar system could be implemented to better equip the public with knowledge and knowhow on Leave No Trace.  Courses on wildfire prevention are already widely available but could be funded by excise tax dollars.  This, in no small way, promotes inclusion to the outdoors by providing education and exposure to the outdoors to underserved communities.  


In Summary


First and foremost I would like to thank you for reading both of my long winded and heavily opinionated articles.  I enjoyed a lot of the comments under my last article.  There were a lot of valid concerns about a proposed tax.  Personally, I wish this wasn’t even a discussion and our government would prioritize our outdoor spaces, however I doubt this will happen without a significant change in mindset.  I think this would be a great opportunity for companies to step up to the plate and fund the lands where their profits are made, just as the hunting and fishing industry before it.  


Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I will not be as responsive in the comments of this article as I will be stepping off on the PCT in less than a week.  So stay tuned if you’re looking for more traditional blog posts and less of my soapbox ramblings about conservation.  Cheers!

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Comments 4

  • John the Trail Again : Apr 14th

    “The excise tax I proposed would in almost no way be assessed on the hiking public.”

    All costs are eventually passed on to consumers, no matter how hard you try to delude yourself. Where do you think the money for the goods and services you consume ultimately comes from?

    “If the companies in turn increase their price that is a good sign to support a different company.”

    And that right there is how most of our manufacturing ended up in China.

  • Jules Rosen : Apr 15th

    Obviously written by someone who does not own their own business. In America most manufacturers/importers are lucky to get 5% of their sales as profits. So I ask you where is this additional 5 to 10% to come from? Of course they have to raise prices it comes from the consumer eventually and what their way than to actually just added tax that people see every time they have to buy something from a $5 fishing lure to a $500 rifle the same five or 10% has to be added on.
    I’m actually against your proposal for the simple reason that we already pay taxes for breeding fish to put in our lakes, to patrol our oceans and make sure people are not drunk, and we have general sales taxes on bullets and equipment that pays for rangers, and conservation already.
    If you want additional money to go into planting trees or making sure our water is pure feel free to take it out of your pocket and send it to your state conservation authority or EPA directly

    • Jules Rosen : Apr 15th

      By the way do you realize the US Park service alone budget is 2.8 billion dollars? That’s almost as much as is so called recreation retail market in the US so your proposal for 5% or 10% will really only add about $400 million to a budget that is being spent already from our federal tax dollars. I’m also not including what we’re spending on clean water with the EPA which is about 40 billion dollars or the state police and the Coast guard which is probably another hundred billion dollars

  • CLF : Apr 15th

    The only side of the country that thinks this way, and spends that much of their own time (and ours, trying to balance them) are also the side who think it is a good idea to aggressively harm those who disagree whilst having trouble defining what women like their mother “IS.”

    Infantile self-orientation is normal and we put up with it because of our love and desire to help INFANTS grow up. However, anyone who has had experience with that level of entitlement and ignorance of the godly commands to grow out of such things as adults who will be judged for our love (for our Creator who GAVE US LIFE, each other, the blessings of our current home environment and perhaps the most important of all: TRUTH), will benefit from the simple understanding that we are born with the values of animals who think the world exists to feed our needs and often tyrannical desires…and some refuse to relinquish this mindset, however covertly or overtly they choose to do so—which is where the complexity enters into this otherwise simple scenario. (!)

    Stop trying to take the toys of the other kids in the sandbox of life! Grow up and build your own sandbox and toys, and the better you do that, others may even be willing to PAY YOU MUCH MORE THAN YOU CAN TAKE FROM OTHERS for your services!

    GROW UP! You can do it, wittle man! You are a BIG BOY NOW, Qwintin…juss wook at yoooo!


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