AUGUSTA, Maine — Like many Mainers, Marion Dunham relishes the chance to enjoy the peace and beauty of the region’s lakes from her kayak.
Dunham said she would even be willing to donate a few dollars more to help support the services provided by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. But change that voluntary donation into a mandatory canoe or kayak license and lawmakers have lost the Readfield resident’s support.
“I’m sorry, it’s a tax,” Dunham told state lawmakers on Tuesday.
For years, policymakers have struggled to find a way to generate more revenues from the significant portion of Mainers — not to mention tourists — who recreate outdoors but do not buy the licenses that provide the majority of DIF&W’s budget.
On Tuesday, a legislative committee held public hearings on several measures to tap into such so-called “nonconsumptive users” to help cover the costs of biologists, game wardens and other programs used by the public.
One bill, LD 626, would require operators of canoes and kayaks who are over age 16 and who do not carry another DIF&W license to purchase a $19 annual boating license. Another measure, LD 510, would require DIF&W to bill for search and rescue costs unless the subject held either a DIF&W-issued license or a new $20 “Maine Rescue Card.”
More than 60 percent of DIF&W’s $34 million annual budget is financed by revenues from licenses and registrations while the federal government chips in more than 20 percent. Less than 10 percent comes from the General Fund, and that was before the current round of budget cuts.
Rep. Jane Eberle, D-South Portland, said she enjoys seeing loons, eagles and other wildlife while canoeing, kayaking or rowing. Eberle said she believes many people who don’t hold hunting, fishing or trapping licenses are willing to help pay for wildlife and habitat protection programs run by the state.
“Why wouldn’t every single one of us want to have a part in protecting these magnificent creatures … and the things that make Maine special?” asked Eberle, the primary sponsor of LD 626.
Others were less enthusiastic about the measure.
Russ Hazzard of Winthrop said if DIF&W needs more money it should increase the fees on motorboats, personal watercraft, snowmobiles, ATVs and other things that he said have an impact on the environment.
Hazzard said it doesn’t make sense to put a tax on the canoes, kayaks and nonmotorized crafts that have minimal impacts.
“If you care about the environment, why are trying to penalize those who are trying to protect it?” Hazzard asked.
But several committee members pointed out that canoes and kayaks can transport the invasive milfoil plant from one lake or pond to another. Unlike motorized watercraft statewide, canoes and kayaks are not required to purchase a DIF&W milfoil sticker.
A number of speakers suggested that the department should offer more ways for outdoor lovers to donate money. But lawmakers and DIF&W officials pointed out that the existing voluntary contribution programs generate very little money for the department.
For instance, fewer than 20 people have donated the $19 to an existing program — known as Wildlife Enthusiast’s Conservation Appreciation, Recreation and Enjoyment, or “WE CARE” — to support endangered and nongame species.
George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, asked canoeists and kayakers to think about who paid for the boat ramps they use or for the wardens who help keep lakes and rivers safe.
“They care about the department and they care about the outdoors here in Maine but they’re just not contributing,” Smith said.
Eberle’s bill also has the support of numerous environmental organizations, including Maine Audubon, The Nature Conservancy and the Natural Resources Council of Maine.