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Saturday, September 5, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Unfair Backpack Tax

ATTENTION, end-of-summer campers: Federal and state officials have once again dredged up a proposal to slap a national excise tax on outdoor equipment - including everything from bird seed and backpacks to binoculars, kayaks and RVs.

The tax, first floated five years ago by the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and championed by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, would support national recreation and wilderness areas. Proponents estimate that the 5 percent excise tax on an expansive range of products would bring in $1.75 billion over five years.

Supporters consider this a reasonable "recreational user fee" to pay for conservation efforts. But unlike on-site user fees at national parks, the backpack tax is not narrowly directed. Many of the items that would fall under the proposed tax are not used exclusively for recreational purposes. For example, there would be no distinction between school children's backpacks and backpacks for hiking and camping. Camera, film, bird baths and bird feeders would all be taxed, no matter how purchasers plan to use them.

Everyone should pay their fair share for enjoying the great outdoors. Hunters and fishers already pay an 11 percent tax on their gear to fund wildlife-preservation programs. But this proposal reaches too far. Why not examine current practices first? A large chunk of parks' user fees and concessionaire fees still go back to the Beltway, rather than being re-invested into the areas where they are collected.

The too-broad backpack tax should be scrapped in favor of smarter, more-targeted use of real user fees.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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