States ask taxpayers to volunteer a few extra dollars for wildlife projects

When the federal government decided last year to cut funds for endangered species preservation, New York State lost not only $400,000 annually, but what it considered its best hope for bringing back the state's bald eagle population.

Beginning this year, however, individual state taxpayers will be able to do their part to see that the national bird is restored to New York's skies.

And they'll do it by voluntarily raising the amount of state income tax they pay.

New York is now one of 20 states with a provision on the state income-tax form which allows taxpayers to return any portion of a tax refund for the specific purpose of financing wildlife preservation projects. Unlike some states , the New York law also allows taxpayers with no refund coming to increase their state tax by the amount they wish to donate for wildlife preservations.

New York is one of nine states where the tax provision is new this year. Millions of dollars already are being raised annually in other states through the tax form ''check off'' method. New York officials are confident they will have at least an additional $1 million each year for projects ranging from habitat preservation - such as the bald eagle's - to monitoring acid precipitation and toxic substances.

State wildlife officials say the growing popularity of the tax provisions proves two things: that people are willing to pay when they know what they're getting and that people like animals.

''I can complain a lot about taxes,'' says Clark Pell of New York's Department of Environmental Conservation, ''but with this I know that by law (that) tax dollar can only be used for fish and wildlife work. It's the only earmarked fund in the state, and that, I think, inspires confidence in the otherwise cautious taxpayer.''

Colorado was the first state to adopt the voluntary tax for wildlife, in 1978 . The chief of the state's nongame and endangered species division, John Torres, says, ''Wildlife is something all people are interested in, especially in a state like ours.''

In addition, states have been quick to adopt the checkoff system for supporting wildlife because it is a relatively uncontroversial way of raising money when more traditional sources seem to be either exhausted or drying up. Aside from the cuts in federal aid, the money raised from fishing and hunting licenses has generally failed to keep up with wildlife preservation budgets. At the same time, states have been reluctant to raise such fees too often.

Still, state wildlife officials say the same person who bristles at paying an additional $5 for a hunting license will often give the same amount or more on his tax form. The difference? The latter is voluntary.

In five years, Colorado's 123,000 taxpayers have given just under $3 million - with an average of 12 percent of the taxpayers contributing each year. The money goes to preserving 27 of the state's 750 animal species considered endangered; for general wildlife preservation work; and to preserving areas near population centers where people can view animals in their native habitat.

Because it was first, Colorado has often been asked by other states to help them draw up wildlife tax provisions. On two occasions, the state division of wildlife discovered later that it had assisted would-be wildlife lovers to draft tax checkoff proposals for goals other than preservation: a sports complex and an arts center. In the process, it has also learned how it might improve its own legislation.

According to Mr. Torres, Colorado will attempt to follow New York in 1985, when the Colorado law is next eligible for revision, by changing the tax form to allow taxpayers with no refund coming to take part in the voluntary-tax-for-wildlife program.

Sen. David Durenberger (R) of Minnesota hopes to see a similar wildife preservation provision placed on federal income-tax forms. Tom Horner, Senator Durenberger's press secretary, says the senator intends to propose legislation this year ''which could put a new line on the tax forms as early as next year.'' Minnesota already has a state provision.

Torres says there may be some drawbacks to having a federal tax checkoff - such as a potential drop in state revenues - but he still says he thinks the proposal is worth investigating.

''Of course,'' he notes, ''it would be especially worthwhile in those states where there's nothing now on the state tax form.''

He adds, however, that each year more states consider enacting similar measures. This year at least two - Maine and Vermont - will have such legislation proposed for the first time. And supporters in Montana, Nebraska, and Illinois, where proposed laws have been either beat in the legislature or met with a gubernatorial veto, are considering trying again.

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