User's Fees
October 5, 2007
Ring-necked Pheasant
Ring-necked Pheasant
In this second anniversary column of "Bird Is A Verb" I'd like once again to take you back in time, back up on that ridgeline, atlatl in hand, stalking dinner.  But, I know what you're thinking--forget the weapons, prehistoric or modern, because Basha's is just down the street, nobody you know actually hunts anymore, and you're annoyed at the forest service because they charge a user's fee just to park on the ridgeline now.  Get over it.  Hunters and fishermen have been paying our way for years, and it's time we birders and other "non-consuming" outdoor users assume our fair share of the maintenance fees for our pathway back to nature.

Back in July DeWayne Smith had an article on the Outdoors page of this paper discussing the long-term implications of the steady decline of hunting and fishing in this country.  Revenues from licenses and permits fund wildlife and habitat management.  Smith quoted statistics showing that in 2006 nearly twice as many of us were feeding and photographing wildlife than hunting and hooking it, and we were spending $45 million doing it.  Unspoken was the fact that little of that $45 million is going back into the resource.  The focus of the article was about recruitment and retention of the "consumers," but I think Smith missed an opportunity to engage the rest of us in the discussion.  Or he was too wary to try to bridge a perceived philosophical disconnect.

Much to the dismay of some birding friends, I am not anti-hunting.  I hunted doves and ducks a few times, but soon gave it up.  It wasn't the price of licenses or the abhorrence of killing.  It was simpler than that.  My last time out I brought home three ducks and asked my wife to clean them so we could try my mother's semi-famous wild game recipe.  "Clean them yourself" she said, cutting right to the chase.

It made me stop and consider why I went afield, and I realized it was food for my soul, not for my body or my ego.  Solitude.  Beauty.  Teal dropping into the slough, silhouetted across the setting sun.  Marsh wrens caroling the coming dawn.  Great blue herons rising through the new morning's mist.  Most hunters, I suspect, are birders deep within.  All birders are certainly hunters, binoculars and cameras replacing shotguns and the ancient atlatls.

Not so many years ago I had this conversation with an old school birder who, back in the day, took pride in avoiding outdoor user fees at every opportunity.  He had come of birding age when many forest campgrounds were free, refuge kiosks often went unmanned, and federal duck stamps were just for hunters because they were the consumers.  He took nothing but pictures, after all, and left nothing but footprints.  He once confided he had waded a mile through a thigh high creek to avoid paying the entrance fee at a midwestern park where he began seriously birding.

I saw him again recently.  We spoke of the old times and then, with a wry smile, he opened up his wallet and showed me his Federal Duck Stamp, his Tonto National Forest Parking Permit, and his National Parks Pass.  He knows songbird numbers are down.  He knows we are losing habitat.  He knows the great disconnect now is not between hunters and birders, but between us and a generation who knows the outdoors only through television and video games.

Actually, it was just this morning that I saw him.  In the mirror as I shaved.