Agency Seeks Fee to Tap into
the Growing Market for Wildlife Watching
CONSERVATION PASS: Money would go to marketing, education
Paula Dobbyn / Anchorage Daily News / November 11, 2003
About 185,500 visitors to Alaska spent $358 million to watch wildlife in 2001, said Michelle Sydeman, assistant division director. These visitors' total impact reached an estimated $660 million, placing Alaska among the top five states in terms of economic benefit from wildlife viewing. California, Florida, Maryland and Colorado surpassed Alaska in terms in spending and the number of wildlife viewers, she said.
Sydeman, speaking to an Anchorage Chamber of Commerce luncheon audience Monday, cited research from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service and other agencies. She said wildlife watchers nationally spent $38 billion on equipment and travel for the primary purpose of watching wildlife. That's more than the $36 billion they spent on fishing or $21 billion for hunting.
Not just visitors love Alaska wildlife. About 170,000 state residents spent $81 million to watch wildlife and two-thirds of hunters are also wildlife viewers, said Sydeman, citing a 1997 statewide survey.
The Forest Service projects a 100 percent increase in the number of wildlife viewers in the next 20 years or so, she said.
"Our goal as the state agency charged with maximizing public benefit from wildlife is to respond to this ballooning interest in viewing and to help Alaskan businesses and communities to fully capture its economic potential," Sydeman said.
Alaska could do much more to tap into these tourism dollars and create more opportunities for businesses and viewing, Sydeman said. Maine, for example, collects $16 million in sales tax revenue from wildlife viewing and businesses that promote watchable wildlife pay $8 million in state corporate income tax, she said.
The Division of Wildlife Conservation wants to do more to publicize Alaska's wealth of wildlife and create places for people to go to see the animals, such as trails, visitor centers and viewing stations. But it needs money. That's why, last legislative session, the division proposed a $15-per-person wildlife conservation pass. The bill, supported by Gov. Frank Murkowski, would have raised $8 million to $10 million for wildlife viewing and education programs and management of nongame species.
The bill passed in the House Resources Committee. A companion bill stalled in Senate Resources.
Sen. Scott Ogan, R-Palmer, chairman of Senate Resources, didn't support the bill and likely won't if it comes up again when the session resumes in January. Ogan said until the size of state government is trimmed, he doesn't support expanding programs. He also saw problems with the essential fairness of the wildlife tax, which was targeted at visitors who pay for wildlife-viewing excursions.
Why should someone who takes a commercial wildlife-watching trip have to pay but someone who crosses the border in their "Subaru Forester with a kayak strapped to the top" not? Ogan asked Monday.
The Alaska Travel Industry Association also opposed the fee. ATIA, Alaska's largest tourism trade group, doesn't like the idea of targeting one sector of the visitor industry, said Ron Peck, executive director, on Monday. It has also opposed rental car taxes leveled at tourists and cruise ship passengers fees for the same reason, Peck said.
Next year, the division will likely suggest splitting some of the money raised through the proposed tax with ATIA, which has been clamoring for more state funding for tourism marketing, she said.
Sydeman said Alaska only stands to benefit by getting the word out about its bounty of animals. The tax, or conservation pass depending on one's outlook, is an investment, she said. Without it, Alaska risks missing the boat and forgoing new jobs, tax revenue and other benefits, what Sydeman called the "golden moose."
Wolf Song of Alaska, P.O. Box 671670, Chugiak, Alaska 99567-1670