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Twenty-five years ago, my Uncle Herb’s hunting cabin was a hive of activity. Come autumn, a boisterous pack of my relatives would arrive at the shack in middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania. They’d drop their duffels and coolers, put on their highlighter-orange apparel, and shoulder their rifles in search of the guest of honor: a whitetail buck.
Today, the hunting cabin is silent, windows boarded shut and overgrown shrubs lining the perimeter. Uncle Herb passed away 10 years ago and with him went the last vestiges of an old family tradition. Neither my cousins, my sister, nor I hunt, either out of moral qualms or disinterest. Either way, few of the folks in my generation seem keen on taking up arms. And we’re not alone.
According to a 2016 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, less than five percent of Americans (older than 16) hunt—that’s half the percentage that hit the woods 50 years ago. Despite recent government efforts to preserve this “heritage” activity, the downward trend is only expected to continue as millennials opt out and the old guard ages out. Some wildlife advocates applaud the shift, but the issue is more complicated than it appears, and the dwindling number of hunters is not without consequence.
Lifelong hunter Teddy Roosevelt was alarmed by the loss of species and habitat and when he became president he created the United States Forest Service to protect 230 million acres of public land. Then, he required hunters to pay for the privilege of hunting the wildlife that lived there.
Today, nearly 60 percent of funding for the state wildlife agencies’ conservation funds comes from the hook-and-bullet crowd, through tag fees, fishing permits, and the Pittman-Robertson Act, which levies an 11-percent tax on ammo and arms.
But there’s a catch: The only way states can access that cash is if they put up 25 percent matching funds from their own coffers. With fewer license sales, states aren’t able to raise the same dollar totals that they used to.
All of which presents a challenge. Hunters may be fading, but the numbers of hikers, skiers, and paddlers are increasing, and conservation needs funding more than ever. One solution: a small conservation tax on outdoor gear. Charging a penny on the dollar for a sleeping bag or pair of skis won’t make up all the lost revenues from firearms sales, but it shows that we, as users of public lands, are ready to be part of the funding picture. We need to get some skin in the game.
I can hear the protests from friends who already complain when they have to pay a modest trailhead parking fee. But hunters pay that and the firearm tax. They accept the cost as part of doing—and preserving—the activity they love. That’s a spirit I can get behind. And if we don’t figure out a way to put our money where our boots are, we might look back in a few decades and realize we have nowhere left to put them at all.