It took seven years to get the bill through Congress -- as long, commented one of its supporters, as "the biblical, seven-year famine." When President Reagan finally signed the Wallop-Breaux bill into law in July of last year, it promised to raise as much as $120 million a year, collected from fishermen and boaters, to make the great outdoors a little bit greater.
"Victory is sweet!" wrote Bob Barker in B.A.S.S Times. "It gives one confidence to tackle the other problems facing us and our environment."
So last month, when bureaucrats at the Office of Management and Budget announced that the money raised by the new tax would be used, instead, to reduce the federal deficit, the reaction from field and stream was quick and furious.
"In Texas, we call that an old-fashioned double cross and a dirty deal," said Bob Kemp, director of fisheries with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which would have shared the revenue with similar agencies in the 49 other states. Texas stands to lose $5 million this year alone if OMB diverts the tax money.
What makes the blow even harder to take is the fact that anglers and boat owners volunteered to pay the tax on the promise that the money would be spent to improve the environment and recreational opportunities.
"This whole effort was supported by a coalition of 33 boating and fishing groups like Trout Unlimited, the Izaak Walton League, the National Wildlife Federation . . . and now comes the OMB, which says, 'We're collecting the money, but we're going to impound it.' That hurts," says Carl Sullivan, an official with the American Fisheries Society, an organization that represents fishery biologists.
The double cross was discovered when President Reagan's 1986 budget was proposed last month. At the bottom of a page in appendix I-M36 was language to repeal the intent of Congress that the money raised by taxing fishing rods, reels, foreign boats and motors would be spent on "fish restoration and management."
A counterattack was quickly organized.
Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.), a cosponsor of the tax bill, warned Interior Secretary-designate Donald P. Hodel at his confirmation hearing that OMB "will have a hell of a fight on their hands" trying to divert the funds.
Outdoorsmen and women, who remember well the promises President Reagan made to support both the outdoors and the concept of "user fees" during his campaign last year, have begun writing angry letters.
Another letter, signed by 30 members of Congress, including Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) was sent to President Reagan urging him to "reverse this ill-advised budget decision and direct that the law be administered properly. We assure you that, if the administration persists in reneging on its promise to America's fishermen and boaters, not only will it generate legitimate opposition, but will engender a deep skepticism about any future user-fee proposal."
The Wallop-Breaux Law is actually an expansion of 35-year-old legislation known as the Dingell-Johnson Law. Enacted in 1950, the law put a 10 percent tax on all fishing rods, reels and lures. The money was automatically returned to the states to support fishing projects such as hatcheries and stocking programs. Each state was obliged to provide a dollar for every three it received from that federal tax.
The Dingell-Johnson Law was the beginning of the U.S. fisheries program. With a dependable source of income, provided by the folks who used the resources, state wildlife agencies could undertake long-term projects to improve local resources.
"It's worked very well for 35 years," said Sullivan. "The only problem has been the revenue never got any higher than $30 million a year. We just needed a way to get more money."
In 1976, the society passed a resolution urging Congress to expand the Dingell-Johnson Law. Getting Congress to actually do it was a bit harder. It took seven years, thousands of dollars and intensive lobbying.
Last summer, the bill sponsored by Wallop and Louisiana Rep. John Breaux was finally passed. It extended the 10 percent tax to include another two dozen items related to fishing and boating, including a reallocation of revenues from the existing nine-cent excise tax on motorboat fuel from highway projects to the Wallop-Breaux fund.
The fund is expected to provide more than $1 billion in revenue during the next 10 years. Maryland officials had planned to use part of their share to revive the dwindling rockfish population. Virginia officials hoped to provide more access to the Potomac, Rappahannock and James rivers, and initiate saltwater research and management programs.
"It's a deliberate double cross," said Kemp in Texas, where an ambitious plan to remodel the state's 50-year-old hatchery program has been temporarily shelved. "The sports fishermen of this state supported President Reagan. But I don't feel like the sportsmen should be paying for the national defense."