Revisiting America’s Best Idea: Why its Time for a Backpack Tax

Tom Warwick

“Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society” 

-US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes

Our National Parks and Public Lands are facing a growing crisis. Each year, as an ever increasing number of visitors travel to our parks, the National Park Service has been forced to divert more and more of its limited funding into basic maintenance and upkeep. While this sounds like the right kind of problem to have, it has in fact resulted in a maintenance backlog of roughly twelve billion dollars. With Congress discussing a possible cut to the Department of the Interior’s budget, this backlog will only continue to grow. To make matters worse, state governments, see selling and developing public lands as a quick (albeit temporary) fix for their own budgetary woes. The states are beginning to use this shortfall as justification for removing the protection designations and transferring control of the land back to themselves. With the stakes this high, it becomes necessary to consider an alternative way to help fund our parks, in this humble blogger/hiking enthusiasts opinion, it is time to seriously consider instituting a “backpack tax.”

The backpack tax was first proposed in the early 1990’s as a way to help supplement state wildlife preservation funds.  In its simplest form, it is a tax placed on outdoor recreation equipment, with the proceeds from the tax being allocated to projects designed to support our Public Lands.  The tax would essentially create a second hand user fee, since It stands to reason that those who purchase outdoor equipment represent the majority share of those who utilize our public lands.  It also would give outdoor companies like Patagonia, Columbia, or the North Face, which represent a $600 billion dollar industry, the opportunity to reinvest in the one of the primary drivers of their business.

A similar model has already been successfully implemented in the United States. Every time someone buys a rifle or ammunition in the U.S., they pay an 11 percent tax.  The proceeds from this tax are designated to help fund each state’s conservation ­efforts. In 2014 alone, those taxes raised $760 million into wildlife management, ­park expansions, and other ­essential endeavors. The taxes, along with ­licenses, make up 80 percent of the funding for state fish and wildlife services. Without that revenue, and additional funding from a similar tax on fishing gear, our nation’s wildlife would be in trouble.

While the tax has shown the potential to raise a significant amount of revenue, it is not without its detractors. In addition to Republicans who consider any kind of tax a threat to our way of life and very liberties, the backpack tax has been strongly opposed by the Outdoor Industry Association. The OIA, which collectively represents the major outdoor recreation suppliers, have argued that the tax is too broad.  They argue that the tax wouldn’t differentiate between someone buying a tent for an upcoming camping trip and someone in Seattle buying a rain coat.  They also argue that adding a tax to an already expensive product would dissuade people from traveling to the parks or getting outside.

Quite frankly, this argument is about as leaky as a cheap tent.  Firstly, the intentions of an individual buying a product made for a specific purpose has never been a factor in taxation. For example; someone buying a bottle of wine to cook will with pay the same tax John does when he grabs a pack of cold ones to crack open with the boys. Even though the two individuals purchased similar products with different intentions, the product is still taxed all the same and state’s education fund is still the beneficiary.  The fact of the matter is that the creators  and the consumers of a product built around the outdoors should contribute to preserving the very thing they are allegedly promoting, whether or not their outdoor gear ever makes it to the great outdoors.  On the issue of the tax dissuading a person from traveling to the parks, the OIA’s claim rings hollow.  In a Seattle Times Op-Ed, The OIA claims that rather than instituting a broad tax the park service should simply increase the costs of permits and entry fees.  Doing this would have the very effect on the parks the OIA are concerned about. By continuing to increase the cost to enter a park  we risk turning the parks into something only the wealthy can afford, we risk our Nation’s natural wonders, which truly belong to us all, becoming a playground for the rich .  By instead spreading the cost out gradually as a tax on durable outdoor gear, the cost is displaced, and the additional benefit of coopting all the frat bros wearing Patagonia fleeces.  Making the parks themselves harder to enter is a concept that is in stark opposition to the NPS mission and the very idea of a National Park.  

Nobody likes new taxes, and as a “recovering Republican,” the idea of suggesting a new tax pains me.  However, if we are going to continue to use the land for our own enjoyment it time to put our money where our mouth is.  A modest tax on the equipment we buy to take with us would go a long way in reducing the maintenance backlog, continuing to preserve some of the most beautiful land on earth, and keeping that land accessible to every American.

3 thoughts on “Revisiting America’s Best Idea: Why its Time for a Backpack Tax

  1. I have no problem with targeted taxes. I get taxed in a lot of places where I getno benefit from that tax. To use you example, I drink both the wine and the brews but judging from the quality of education I see around me, I’m not getting much positive benefit from that fund. My mobile provider passes on government mandated taxes to my bill and it does nothing to improve my service. At least a tax on outdoor gear is related to something I really get benefit from.

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