Is It Time To Re-think the Collection of
Pittman-Robertson Excise Taxes?

By Stu Bristol

At your next rod and gun club meeting ask your members these two simple questions. "What is the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act?" and "How much do hunters and anglers pay into the programs funded by the Act?"

Let's answer the second question first. The underlying motivation for this month's column came from my good friend and fellow outdoor writer, Dick Pinney, columnist for the Manchester (NH) Union Leader. On a recent fishing trip with me he posed the question, "Does Maine (and other states with a sales tax) collect money on the base price of Pittman-Robertson (PR) qualified products, or are we paying a tax on taxes already paid?"

I started digging for answers and, as one might expect, when it comes to dealing with our state and Federal government, became mired in acres of double-speak. Smarter people than I should be given this simple math problem so forgive me if the numbers used as an example here are a bit on the fuzzy side. This would make a great high school or college economics class hypothetical.

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My first unanswered question to the bean-counters is "Why is the basic 11 percent excise tax on PR qualified products collected at the manufacturer's level instead of at the retail level?" Every hunter or angler I asked understood the tax was collected on the retail price. It's the answer to that question that prompts me to suggest the P-R Act should be revisited and perhaps updated.

Another statistic that caught my eye as I researched this topic is the fact that between 75 and 95 percent of people enjoying the benefits of PR collected funding do not hunt or fish. Perhaps the time has come to expand the tax to include products used in the soft side of the market (hiking, biking, wildlife watching etc.) Right now gun owners, archers and anglers are paying the whole bill for what 75-95 percent of the people are making use of.

Take a sample product with a base price of $100 and the excise tax (11 percent) pads the price as the product leaves the factory to $111.00. Now add the customary mark-up of 30 percent by the distributor and $111 now balloons to $144.33. Tack on the retailers mark-up, even at a modest 20 percent and the consumer, in sales tax states such as Maine, pays 5 percent on the consumer-level pricetag of $173.13. Shouldn't the middle-man and retailer be adding their mark-up on the base price, not the "after taxes" price?

So, instead of consumers of guns, ammunition, archery tackle and fishing gear paying $11 on this hypothetical product, we pay $11 and then another $8.70. So instead of collecting 55 cents (state tax)on the base price at the manufacturers level, consumers are paying 5 percent of the retail price that already includes the PR tax, for the sum of $8.70.

That means the end user is required to pay $19.70 (nearly 20 percent on the base price instead of 11 percent) in taxes on a base $100 product, but only $11 of that money goes into the Pittman-Robertson Act programs. Because gun owners, archers and anglers asked for a Federal Excise tax to aid conservation, other people (manufacturers, their reps, retailers and state government) are riding our shirt-tails and collecting almost as much as we do with none of the collected funds going into the program.

Now, to answer my first question posed to rod and gun club members. The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, better know as the Pittman-Robertson Act, named for its principal sponsors, Senator Key Pittman of Nevada and then-Representative A. Willis Robertson of Virginia was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on September 2, 1937.

The purpose of this Act was to provide funding for the selection, restoration, rehabilitation and improvement of wildlife habitat, wildlife management research, and the distribution of information produced by the projects.

Funds are derived from an 11 percent Federal excise tax on sporting arms, ammunition, and archery equipment, and a 10 percent tax on handguns. These funds are collected from the manufacturers by the Department of the Treasury and are apportioned each year to the States and Territorial areas (except Puerto Rico) by the Department of the Interior on the basis of formulas set forth in the Act.

Appropriate State agencies are the only entities eligible to receive grant funds. Funds for hunter education and target ranges are derived from one-half of the tax on handguns and archery equipment.

Our early American settlers had encountered a spectacular abundance of wildlife. But in their zeal to conquer an untamed continent, they squandered that legacy for centuries, wiping out some species and reducing others to a pitiful remnant of their original numbers.

In the early 1930's, the accumulated impacts of plundered forests, heedlessly plowed grasslands, and commercial slaughter of wildlife were brought sharply into focus by the worst drought and the worst economic depression in America's history. People realized something needed to be done.

But even the best efforts seemed too little too late. Lake beds were turning to powder, and dust storms scoured whole regions of the country. Money was as scarce as wildlife and getting scarcer. Not only was the passenger pigeon long extinct and bison nearly so; in many rural areas the sight of once-common animals like white-tailed deer and wild turkey and wood duck had become something only old timers remembered.

Then a remarkable thing happened. With a handful of far-sighted conservationists leading the way, organized sportsmen and the firearms and ammunition industries joined efforts with State wildlife agencies to meet the wildlife crisis with an ingenious long-range plan. At their urging, Congress extended the life of an existing 10 percent tax on ammunition and firearms used for sport hunting, but this time it earmarked the proceeds to be distributed to the States for wildlife restoration. Not just restocking, which had met with mediocre success at best, but other needed support systems as well - scientific research and habitat management to give animals a solid chance to re-establish healthy populations. Initial progress did not come quickly. By the time the program was well under way, World War II brought shortages and millions of sportsmen went into the armed forces, all of which sharply curtailed receipts from the earmarked excise tax. But Pittman-Robertson really began to take off in the 1950's, and from that time until the present its successes have multiplied over and over, exceeding the high hopes of many of its early boosters.

Numerous species have rebuilt their populations and expanded their ranges far beyond what they were in the 1930's. Among them are the wild turkey, white-tailed deer, pronghorn antelope, wood duck, beaver, black bear, giant Canada goose, American elk, desert bighorn sheep, bobcat, mountain lion, and several species of predatory birds. Because improved research and good habitat also help non-game animals, many creatures that are not hunted, such as bald eagles, sea otters, and various songbirds, have benefitted under activities funded bythe "P-R Act"

Another major building block, invisible to the casual observer, is professionalism in wildlife management. Just "leaving wildlife alone" had failed to work in the past, and even the employment of game wardens and restocking are not enough in an era when human activities steadily increase the pressure on available lands and waters. Pittman-Robertson funding has aided greatly in a nationwide effort to enlist science in the cause of wildlife conservation. Of the "P-R" money available to the States, more than 62 percent is used to buy, develop, maintain and operate wildlife management areas. Some 4 million acres have been purchased outright since the program began - enough to cover all of Connecticut and Rhode Island - and nearly 40 million acres are managed for wildlife under agreements with other landowners.

About 26 percent of "P-R" funding to the States is used for surveys and research, which have substituted science for guesswork in wildlife restoration. Surveys, now employing computers and space-age technology, provide solid information on the location and activities of species, the makeup of their population by age and sex, and whether their numbers are rising and declining - essential data in managing the species and its habitat.

Research has disclosed surprising answers to former riddles about wildlife's needs for food, cover, and breeding success. For example, it has shown that most big game animals do not directly compete with livestock for food, and seldom carry contagious disease to cattle or sheep. Thanks to research, live trapping and transplanting have become applied sciences instead of high-risk gambles. Although Pittman-Robertson is financed wholly by firearms users and archery enthusiasts, its benefits cover a much larger number of people who never hunt but who do enjoy such wildlife-related pastimes as birdwatching, nature photography, painting and sketching, and a wide variety of other outdoor pursuits. Almost all the lands purchased with "P-R" money are managed both for wildlife production and for other public uses. Recent estimates indicate about 70 percent of the people using these areas are not hunting, and in some localities the ratio may go as high as 95 percent.

Numerous non-game species enjoy "P-R" benefits too. Ground cover for game birds also is used by all sorts of other birds and small animals. Bald eagles benefit significantly under careful management of forested areas where they typically nest. If fact, wildlife managers have learned that it is virtually impossible to take an action that will benefit only one species or one group of users. Fortunately, the Pittman-Robertson Act does not restrict use of funds to game species, but instead allows their use for any species of wild bird or mammal. Much of the money spent on research, and on management as well, now is specifically aimed at helping non-game and even endangered and threatened species Hunter education is designed to make each hunter aware of how his/her behavior affects others. Its backbone is the 45,000 volunteer instructors from all walks of life who donate about $25 million worth of service annually. They teach safe and proper handling of hunting equipment, responsible hunting conduct afield, the identification of wildlife and understanding of its habits and habitats, and respect - for the animals, and for other hunters, landowners, and the general public.

Only three States still do not require satisfactory completion of a hunter education course for first-time hunters. Between 1974 and 1984, some States had cut their hunting accident rates by half or more, and reduced annual fatalities to zero.

In the more than 50 years since "P-R" began, over $2 billion in Federal excise taxes have been matched by more than $500 million in State funds (chiefly in hunting license fees) for wildlife restoration. Benefits to the economy have been equally impressive. National surveys show that hunters now spend some $10 billion every year on equipment and trips. Non-hunting nature lovers spend even larger sums to enjoy wildlife, on travel and on items that range from bird food to binoculars, from special footwear to camera equipment. Areas famous for their wildlife have directly benefitted from this spending, but so have sporting goods and outdoor equipment manufacturers, distributors and dealers. Thousands of jobs have been created.

Pittman-Robertson is one of three complementary programs administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help restore our splendid heritage at no cost to the general tax payer. The other two are the 1934 Migratory Bird Conservation Act, or "Duck Stamp" program funded by a special annual fee paid by active hunters and non-hunting friends of wild waterfowl, to acquire refuges and lease wetlands for the primary benefit of migratory birds; and the 1950 Dingell-Johnson, Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act (augmented by the 1984 Wallop-Breaux Act), financed by an excise tax on fishing equipment to help States provide better habitat for many fish species and more angling opportunities for people.

So, what do you think? Should we re-think the collection of P-R funds to include products used by the non-consumptive outdoor users. Should we collect the tax at the retail level to try and curb the appetites of the middle-man and state government that collect almost as much as we do, with none of their money going to aid conservation?

Stu Bristol is a freelance writer, living in Lyman. His weekly and monthly columns have been published nationwide for over 30 years. For more Stu Bristol articles visit www.stubristol.com.


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