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Paddling tax stuck "up a creek" without safety plan

May 12, 2018

Paddlesports are becoming Big Business in the Great Lakes state. The Coast Guard estimates some 650,000 kayaks, canoes and paddleboards ply Michigan waters every year. And that number is expected to grow seven percent a year, reports The Detroit News.

Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News

At that rate, paddlecrafts would outnumber registered power boats within three years. The crush of paddlers from rank beginners to advanced Great Lakes paddlers … threatens to overcrowd the 1,300 boat launches around the state.

That’s exactly why some in Lansing are pushing plans to slap ten-dollar registration fees and big, gaudy stickers on any rigid-hulled paddlecraft longer than eight feet.

It’s where the money is – or could be, if recommendations from the Michigan State Waterways Commission can make their way through a skeptical, Republican-controlled Legislature. The chair of the House Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee says the tax plan is, quote, “up a creek without a paddle” …

But this is an election year. And things change. My wife and I are kayakers. We paddle the Detroit River and several of the Great Lakes every season. We attend symposiums; we practice rescues and strokes; we dress for the water temperature … and we always wear lifejackets. But a lot more folks on Michigan’s waters don’t, say law enforcement officials.

They’re right.

And that’s the rub: the tax-the-paddlers crowd might have a more compelling argument if proceeds from registration fees were earmarked clearly for safety training. The Michigan director of the American Canoe Association, Michael Gray, told The News that if boaters are expected to take a boater safety course … and if hunters are expected to take a hunting safety course … shouldn’t paddlers be required to do the same?

The short answer is yes.

But paddle the Detroit River in late April or early May … or Lake Superior near Munising in early fall. You’ll see folks without lifejackets or proper clothing paddling water that’s a lot colder than they appreciate. You’ll see boats laden with full coolers. That’s how simple capsizes go really wrong really fast … and require a rescue by law enforcement. RESCUES DON’T come cheaply to taxpayers.

If Michigan’s paddling fleet keeps growing … and if wanna-be paddlers aren’t expected to learn paddle safety … the emergency call volume will grow, too. And that will revive stalled efforts to tax kayaks, canoes and paddleboards here.

Look, we’re the stewards of 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. We have arguably the best kayaking water between Maine and Seattle … tens of thousands of inland lakes … and who knows how many rivers and streams. We’ve got good paddling coaches and a smart paddling community capable of helping shape public policy to benefit the fresh water legacy we all share.

Job one shouldn’t be seeing how quickly the state can start filling a new revenue stream. It should be setting standards for safety on Michigan waters that benefit everyone … and save lives.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.