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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Registering Nonmotorized Recreation Vehicles Makes Sense

   Those of us with long memories perked up in April when voters at Wisconsin’s annual conservation hearings supported registering nonmotorized recreational “assets,” which often go adrift or left stranded on weak ice.

   Imagine that: making folks pay fees to register canoes, kayaks, paddleboards, nonmotorized boats, portable ice shanties and other equipment that help us hunt, fish, explore, soak up sunlight and breathe fresh air. Other states, like Minnesota, impose such fees to cover work by conservation wardens and law-enforcement officers to reunite owners with their possessions after severe storms or simple carelessness. In fact, in tragedies, it could even help identify the corpse(s) floating nearby.

   Such registration systems make sense. After all, some cities long ago accepted programs to license bicycles, and we’re all supposed to buy passes to bicycle state trails. Reasons like those probably explain why voters at April’s fish and wildlife hearings supported so-called “asset tags” by a 55-45 percentage, with 12,126 people voting on the proposal.

   The idea advanced further in mid-May when delegates at the statewide Wisconsin Conservation Congress convention supported it, too. The measure will likely come up again at the April 2025 hearings for another vote. If it wins WCC approval again, things could get interesting.

   Who knows. Maybe for the first time since 1997 this sensible idea would risk becoming law.

   In case you missed that era, the Wisconsin Legislature considered a bill 27 years ago that would have imposed a $10 annual registration fee for canoes, kayaks and small boats with no engines. In fact, some folks predicted that then Gov. Tommy Thompson would veto the bill if it reached his desk, fearing he might offend canoeists and kayakers. After all, he faced re-election a year later in 1998.

   Now that was funny. Does anyone really worry about losing the canoe-kayak vote, especially a year before an election? With an electorate that struggles in November to remember insults from August, ol’ Tommy surely had bigger worries.   

   Unfortunately, the bill never advanced, so we’ll never know for certain if Gov. Thompson cared two paddle strokes about annoying anyone with nominal registration fees. One can assume, though, most politicians today would love to grandstand while vetoing such a bill. They like pandering about saving our “hard-earned money,” even if it’s only fair that all recreationists pay for services that benefit them.

   After all, when folks let their paddleboats blow away in white-caps, or let kayaks or canoes float downriver during picnics, wardens or sheriff’s deputies often must get involved. At a minimum, they retrieve and store the castaway while figuring out if someone fell overboard and drowned, and might float up in a nearby park or neighbor’s boathouse.

   It’s also ironic that many folks of the “silent sports” persuasion balk at registration fees. Some have this self-righteous idea that they’re entitled to free rides because they’re “nonconsumptive users.” They love conservation programs that protect and enhance Wisconsin’s natural resources, especially if someone else—doing something they’ll never try—pays for most of it.

   Yes, kayakers and canoeists don’t cause the headaches and destruction wreaked by high-powered boat engines, wake-generating boats, and crazy people on jet-skis, but they use boat ramps, clog parking lots near walk-in launches, and often ruin quiet evenings for those fishing bluegill backwaters. Plus, sometimes they require finding and rescuing when caught in storms or swamped by idiots in powerboats.

   So, let’s just agree a government that serves its citizenry is responsible for protecting our publicly owned land, water, fish and wildlife. And to do those jobs, agencies like the Wisconsin Department of Nature Resources require the citizenry to pay for those services.

   Hunters and anglers have long accepted that concept. Not only do they pay license fees (nearly $200 worth annually for many couples) but also federal excise taxes on all hunting, fishing and marine equipment.

   Politically active canoeists, kayakers, rowers, ice-shanty owners or duck-skiff paddlers shouldn’t fight such fees. After all, why advertise a selfish streak? Let’s concede we don’t blink at $3 monthly fees for “cloud” storage; $27 annually for each plant, tree or mushroom photo-ID app, or $30 and higher for GPS-based mapping and navigation apps.

   Why pay all those fees without pouting, but then whine when asked to pay for services only trained government employees can provide?

   While we’re collecting fees, of course, let’s concede that paddlers cause far fewer environmental impacts than those who drive luxury boats with huge, inefficient engines. It’s past time lawmakers charge people for recreation our natural resources provide, whether it’s proportionately higher fees for large powerboats and heavy wake-boats. If they can afford luxurious, destructive toys, they can pay more for the environmental and stress-related damage they inflict.

   After all, we pay extra for energy-efficient cars and trucks in Wisconsin, rather than making semi-trailer trucks pay their fair share for roadway damage these behemoths inflict.

   Will we ever see an asset fee or luxury-boat tax? If lawmakers were smart, they would explore why voters at the spring hearings supported the idea.

   In the process, lawmakers could put more conservation wardens into our woods and onto our waters, and pay them to stay in Wisconsin rather than defecting to other states or law-enforcement agencies for higher-paying careers.

Voters at April’s fish and wildlife hearings supported a new program that would eventually require residents to pay an “asset fee” to register canoes, kayaks and other nonmotorized recreational gear and machines. Patrick Durkin photo

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