Watch Your Backpack

If you've ever thought about fleeing into the wilderness to avoid the long reach of the tax man, you might want to buy your hiking gear soon.

A coalition of environmental groups is trying to get Congress to pass a 5 percent tax on outdoor recreation products--everything from sport-utility vehicles to backpacks. The money would be used for such purposes as protecting endangered species and building wildlife trails. The groups pushing the proposal--some 2,900 of them, including environmental organizations, state fish and wildlife agencies, and municipalities--are organized under an umbrella called "Teaming with Wildlife."

"Outdoor tax" proponents call their levy a user fee. But a quick look at the items that would be covered suggests a rather tenuous relationship between the user and his impact on the wilderness. For example, only 10 percent of sport-utility vehicles ever drive off-road. And more than two-thirds of the backpacks sold are used by students to lug books to and from school. Other items that could be covered by the outdoor tax are hiking boots, tents, even cameras and film.

For now, the proposal doesn't have congressional support or a legislative sponsor. "The problem is, we have a very conservative Congress right now," says Naomi Edelson, one of the group's organizers. Still, Edelson says, the tax idea, which has been pushed for the last five years, "isn't dead." Teaming with Wildlife is biding its time, lobbying members of Congress, and hoping for a "different mood" to emerge on Capitol Hill.

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