THE TIME HAS COME TO RAISE TAXES FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

by Whit Gibbons


June 22, 2008


Election season is here and politicians across the land are telling us what they can do for us and what their opponent will do to us. But one position they all take is that they will lower taxes. I am suspicious when politicians of different political bents agree on an issue. So, as I have done before, I will offer my own position on taxes: I am in favor of them at county, state, and federal levels--and in some cases I favor increasing them.

It's time to stop pretending we should lower taxes, as if someday they will disappear. We will always have taxes. If we want public schools, roads, libraries, and hundreds of other products and services that benefit society as a whole and not just a few select groups or individuals, we have to pay for them. And from an ecological perspective, I see some gaping holes that a more rigorous tax system could help fill.

To start at the county level, do you know of any county in the country with even an average density of people that does not have a problem with animals, both domestic and wild? All counties that are not pure wilderness have an animal control program of some sort. Someone must be available to take care of abused or dangerous pets. Anyone who thinks such a service is unnecessary has had no experience with horses improperly cared for, cats that live in severely overcrowded conditions, or free-ranging dogs that could potentially attack pets or people. In fact, in some states it is not illegal to keep pet Bengal tigers or African lions. Who responds when one escapes?

Dedicated animal control officers take care of such problems, and no matter where you live, the chances are that they are understaffed and overworked. They are among the least appreciated public service officials, because much of what they do is behind the scenes. Most of these workers really care about animals and are dedicated to their jobs. If you do not think they deserve more support, then you do not fully realize what they deal with on a near-daily basis. Strengthening animal control programs would help build better communities. I support allocating more tax money for that purpose.

At the state level, among the most neglected environmental programs are those that focus on nongame species. In most states, the environmental welfare of nongame species is under the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) or its equivalent. Yet proportionately little of a DNR budget is spent on programs to determine the status of populations of nongame species, in contrast to the millions spent annually on programs for game species. Game species are extremely important, both in regard to the indirect habitat protection that accrues and the recreational opportunities they offer hunters. But nongame species are the barometer of the ecological health of any region. Who is checking to see whether populations of gopher frogs, box turtles, or green pitcher plants are stable or declining? These and many other nongame species are indicators of ecosystem stability and environmental vigor. But keeping ecological records on such species requires dedicated DNR biologists. Keeping a state healthy should be the responsibility of the people of the state. We can do this with tax revenues.

Finally, the need for federal taxes for the country's national park system cannot be overstated. The gradual erosion of funding to support some of the finest environmentally protected areas in the world is deplorable. Anyone in this country should be able to visit any national park they can get to, and they should find first-rate facilities and services upon arrival. Spending tax money to help keep such fine programs from declining ought to be a popular idea, one that is in the best interest of the general public.

A discussion about taxes always raises the age-old question of who should do the paying. That's yet to be resolved. But, meanwhile, I would like to hear a politician take the first step and say that a healthy environment is worth paying for. And if that means raising taxes, so be it.



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