Bay Journal

We birders shouldn’t be cheep-skates when it comes to funding habitat

  • By Michael Burke on October 20, 2014
Josh Falk, an avid birder, tries out the binoculars he received for his birthday.  (Dave Harp) Birders enjoy the view along the Delaware Bay coast.  (Dave Harp)

“Raise my taxes” might be considered a joke after two decades of incessant calls for lower rates. But that counterintuitive message has worked before and may do so again. The beneficiary would be North American birds — all 800 species.

To understand this proposal, some history is needed.

At the turn of the 20th century, many iconic wildlife species such as bison and bald eagles were on the verge of extinction.

Unregulated hunting and the loss of habitat were decimating game animals and birds. Market hunters were a particular problem. A single hunter for the fur trade could kill hundreds of bison in a day. On the Chesapeake Bay, market hunters killed hundreds of ducks with punt guns: small cannons filled with shot and mounted on specially constructed boats. As many as 15,000 canvasback ducks were killed in a single day.

Sportsmen were alarmed by the sudden population collapses of favored game and waterfowl. By the 1920s, sportsmen were forming hunting clubs and demanding action by elected officials. With their strong backing, in 1937, Congress passed landmark legislation, the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, more commonly known as the Pittman-Robertson Act. The law called for a modest 11 percent federal excise tax on the initial purchase of firearms and ammunition. What was most important is that all the proceeds were earmarked for states to manage game animals and their habitats.

This self-imposed tax has remained popular with hunters because the funds are reserved for game animals and the results have been an outstanding success.

Similarly, groups like Ducks Unlimited organized into a powerful voice for conservation of waterfowl. They are also the most ardent supporters of the Federal Duck Stamp program, which dates to 1934. Duck Stamps are required for hunting waterfowl, and 98 percent of the proceeds go into the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. Thanks to the Duck Stamp program, more than $850 million has been raised to purchase or lease 6 million acres of critical wetlands habitat.

In the 1950s, anglers decided that sport fisheries demanded similar action. Based on the popular Pittman-Robertson Act, the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act was adopted. Better known as Dingell-Johnson, the law requires a 10 percent excise tax on rods, reels, lures and line with the funds dedicated to carrying out projects to enhance and manage sport fishing resources. This self-imposed excise tax retains its popularity, too. The key is dedicated funding leading to exceptional results.

Today, protected resource habitats aren’t just good for the nation’s fish and game. The Trust for Public Lands has found that $1 invested in land acquisition generates $4 in nature-based goods and services. The United States’ 550 National Wildlife Refuges, for example, support 35,000 jobs directly and generate $2.4 billion in local economic activity.

In the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, bird-watching was a pastime for the wealthy and sometimes, the eccentric. In 2014, though, the number of birders in the United States tops 47 million. The birders visiting our wildlife refuges vastly outnumber the hunters and anglers.

Today, a growing number of birders are calling for legislation that mirrors Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson. The purchase of guns and ammo can top $5 billion annually, resulting in a strong base of funding for conservation. Birders spent $7.6 billion on their specialized equipment in 2011. Hunters and anglers pay for habitat that directly benefits birders, yet birders contribute nothing in dedicated conservation fees. An excise tax of 10 or 11 percent on binoculars, spotting scopes and the like would put birders on level footing with their hunting and fishing neighbors.

When these landmark U.S. conservation bills were adopted, hunting and fishing were commonplace and birders were few. Today, the number of sportsmen is stagnant or declining, putting new pressures on conservation funding. The maintenance and restoration projects backlog at our federal resource lands continues to grow, topping $11 billion, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Today, birders are the pre-eminent sportsmen of our age and our numbers continue to grow. With an influx of dedicated funds, programs to conserve and restore habitat can garner strong support among birders and benefit countless avian species.

It’s time we started paying our fair share to protect and conserve the avian species that entertain, educate and enlighten us. So go ahead, raise my taxes.

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About Michael Burke

Mike Burke is an amateur naturalist who lives in Cheverly, MD.

Read more articles by Michael Burke

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