Senate bill charges Alaska wildlife viewers $5

Posted: Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Wildlife viewers would have to pay for the privilege under a Senate bill that tour operators say unfairly targets their industry.

The measure would require tour guides, state ferries, the Alaska Railroad and others charge their sightseeing clients $5 dollars each for a wildlife conservation tag.

Bill sponsor Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, says the bulk of revenues would go toward fish and wildlife management in the state, a cost he says is unfairly born by hunters and fishermen through license fees.

"There were a million and a half visitors to the state last year ... if half of them paid for this tag, it would have a significant impact on our fish and game budget," he said.

The program is estimated to raise about $4.6 million its first year.

Although the state constitution prohibits fees being designated for a particular purpose, Bunde said he hopes the money will go toward boardwalks, interpretive signs and educational programs.

Bunde said he has received e-mails from visitors eager to contribute to state fish and game management, but tour operators who spoke at the Senate Resources Committee hearing were unequivocally opposed to his idea.

They say the fee would have a disproportionate effect on small businesses and be an administrative nightmare for those who work with hundreds of people per day.

Kim Kirby of the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau said it targets residents as well as visitors and it hurts Alaska's image by enhancing its growing reputation for greed.

Ron Peck, president of the Alaska Visitors Association, said wildlife is a major draw for tourists but they don't expect to pay extra to see it, "any more than they would expect to pay for sun and sand in Hawaii or to see cactuses in Arizona."

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said he was worried about the effect on riders of the Alaska Marine Highway.

"I'd hate to think a person traveling from Haines to Juneau to shop for groceries would be required to pay the fee," he said.

Bunde said residents going to or from their hometown on the ferry would not be charged.

The tag would be good for a year. Those holding fishing and hunting licenses and people under 16 and over 60 years of age would be exempted.

Two years ago, the Murkowski administration proposed a $15 "wildlife conservation pass," but the measure failed to pass the Legislature.

Bunde's bill was held over in committee. Public testimony will continue next week.

The bill is Senate Bill 166.

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