Canoe tax

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(Host) Commentator Allen Gilbert is worried about three recent proposals concerning the environment and conservation.

(Gilbert) It’s always interesting to see what issues capture the imagination of the many people who write letters to the editors of Vermont’s newspapers. There can be an avalanche of interest about a subject that at first seemed only a quick flash in the pan.

One subject that hasn’t died down this summer is the idea to tax canoeists and kayakers. Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Wayne Laroche says he needs extra revenue to shore up the finances of his department. But protests against a canoe tax have been loud and persistent. Critics say that the state should encourage, not discourage, the use of non-motorized craft. It’s good for tourism, good for people’s health, and good for the air we breathe and the water we swim and sail in.

I agree with the critics. The overall impact of non-motorized watercraft is much less than the impact of motorized craft. Here’s an interesting statistic: A 100-horsepower, two-stroke personal watercraft that’s operated for seven hours emits the same amount of ozone-producing gases as a California-standard car driven 100,000 miles. Canoes and kayaks, of course, use muscle power, and are cleaner than both powerboats and cars.

But I think there’s a bigger issue at play here. It’s the overall stance of Vermont state government towards the utilization of public resources. I see some disturbing trends.

The idea to tax canoeists and kayakers wasn’t proposed in a vacuum. Earlier this year, a Republican legislator introduced a bill to tax bicyclists. He didn’t like that bicyclists were using highways for free. Never mind that bikes have zero impact on road surfaces, or that bikes can help reduce traffic, air pollution, and the need for more roads and parking lots — as well as keep people healthier and boost tourism.

The bike tax proposal died, but I thought of it when the canoe tax idea came along this summer. Why go after folks who are trying to enjoy the outdoors in an unobtrusive way?

There was a third curious initiative this spring that’s hard not to connect to these other two. In the House, Republicans added language to the state’s capital bill to make it easier to privatize publicly owned land. Local selectboards would be given greater power to identify state-owned land in their town that the board felt should be returned to private ownership. The plan was a developer’s dream. Fortunately, it died.

What’s interesting about all three of these proposals is that they strike at values held dear by Howard Dean when he was governor. He launched his political career on the advocacy work he had done promoting the Burlington bike path. He is an avid canoeist; his official portrait in the Statehouse shows him with a canoe. And Dean pushed hard, successfully, to conserve the former Champion lands in the Northeast Kingdom.

It has been disturbing, on the national level, to see the Bush administration’s neglect of the environment and its disregard for conservation. Let’s hope Vermont isn’t being led down a similar path.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer and parent who is active in education issues.

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