On an early morning in mid-March 2013, a middle-aged man of good character and fair standing in his community, free from warrant or criminal history, walked into his local Wal-Mart store in Western Colorado and attempted to purchase a resident fishing license at the sporting goods counter. His honest and best efforts were categorically denied.
It just so happens that I have direct knowledge of this unfortunate yet otherwise insignificant event, and I can attest to the fact that the man was deeply disturbed by such a troubling outcome.
He was told that said purchase was denied because he failed to present upon demand the necessary documentation needed to prove his state residency beyond any shadow of doubt, and the proceedings stopped right there. This determination came as a great surprise, as the man had purchased a Colorado resident hunting or fishing license of one kind or another each and every year since escaping the all too restrictive confines of the east coast in 1976.
I can assure you that the refusal of service and accommodation by the vendor was taken quite seriously by said confused citizen, and the deal did not go down without discussion and argument.
For him it was no small matter, and it left him shaken and angry beyond simple proportion. Of that I am quite certain, and as you may have guessed by now, I possess such firsthand and intimate knowledge of it all . . . because it happened to me.
I can tell you what I know.
My issues really began when I attempted to purchase an annual fishing license at another agent one week earlier, and suddenly realized that I had never purchased a fishing license in 2012.
This is no big deal, of course, but I had forgotten that a few years ago the State of Colorado had adopted a “season year” fishing license, which was valid from April 1 to March 31. This is different than the more traditional “calendar year” license of old, which renews on January 1st of every year.
At that point I opted to buy a one-day fishing license, because it did not make sense to pay full price for an annual license that would be valid for only three weeks.
I had no problem purchasing my one day fishing license, which is to be expected, because it is not supposed to be difficult to purchase a hunting or fishing license in Colorado.
After all, a complete representation of my personal information and recreational histories are already stored in the “central computer”, as the state developed a Total Licensing System years ago. It already knows my Driver’s License Number, my Social Security Number, my height and weight and eye color, my current and past addresses, and all of my license purchases throughout the years. Who knows what else it knows, and who it shares it with?
I just know that I was always told that the computerized system was designed to make everything more streamlined and carefree for us mere mortals of the public domain.
So why then, the problem, which is exactly what I wanted to know?
I had not planned to fish again until April 1st or after, so when my friends asked me to fish on short notice I decided to purchase an additional fishing day. The Wal-Mart store was on my way.
I presented for inspection a current and valid Commercial Drivers License (which is not easy to acquire by the way) complete with photograph, background check, and current medical clearances. Additionally, I also provided the one-day fishing license that I had purchased the week before, my Elk license from last fall, and a Colorado Hunter Safety card issued in 2006. I freely admit that I was not prepared for an interrogation, and that I did not carry a satchel full of identity papers to prove my validity.
I simply wanted to add an additional fishing day to a one-day fishing license, and I was willing to pay. My driver’s license and photo ID confirmed my identity. My one-week-old fishing license provided evidence that I had supplied the necessary residency documentation at the time of that purchase. It should have been enough. In fact, it was more than enough to satisfy all legal requirements.
But it was not so in the vendor’s eyes. As it happens, my driver’s license had been reissued five months before, and listed only the reissue date. This seemed to cause insurmountable roadblocks. Colorado requires that you live in the state for at least six months to qualify for residency, and the sales clerk took one look at that … and stopped all proceedings. He flat-out refused to continue with all the conviction of a loyal and dedicated foot soldier.
I have some knowledge of the inner workings of the licensing system. I explained to him what I knew, and that all of my paperwork when added together was reason for him to attempt to issue a license. After all, the necessary information was readily accessible on the fully integrated licensing terminal hovering just outside his reach.
He simply refused, citing policy and procedure while staring intently at a handout sheet, and literally threw up his hands before heading for the back room to search for reinforcements.
A couple of clueless sales clerks, a department manager, and one store manager later . . . I was resolutely denied service and emphatically asked to leave the premises. For the record, I must acknowledge that over the years I have been thrown out of places with much more inspiring views and tasteful decor.
I just wanted to go ice fishing. I wanted to escape the data control grid for just a few hours and feel the fresh air on my face in a desire to remember why I moved to the western part of the U.S. in the first place. I wanted to hook up with a primal and pulsating creature, drawn from the depths of another world that is safe from the grasp of the social engineers and the prying electronic eyes and ears of a robotic spy drone. I wanted to pretend for a brief time that I was a free man in a free state doing what I do best and enjoy the most, without some lingering and disturbing aftertaste of heavy-handed experience hanging on my breath. Is that too much to ask?
Well, I chose to take the matter to a higher authority; and, in this case, that was the licensing division of Colorado Game, Fish, And Parks. I had no doubt that they would like to comment on the heart of the matter, and indeed they did. They were quite happy to provide some guidance in this regard.
Vendors who wish to sell hunting and fishing licenses in their retail outlet can apply for and become license agents. They then become official representatives of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and they have a duty to provide courteous and efficient service as their agent. It also means that they need to know the licensing laws and regulations far better than you or I, and how to apply them correctly and fairly. Failure to do so can have serious consequences.
Public complaints can trigger a letter of disciplinary action from Colorado Parks, and contribute to a “three strikes” rule. The vendor can be required to attend classes on the proper procedures and protocols of licensing and agency, and to properly retrain all staff. If the abuses continue, the agent’s agreement can be revoked and their ability to sell hunting and fishing licenses discontinued.
I have filed a formal complaint through appropriate channels. It would appear that some of Wal-Mart’s staff at this particular store will be “reeducated” on my behalf before the storyline of our little encounter has ended.
It is comforting to know that a private citizen has some ability to affect change, and possibly prevent someone else from suffering the same humiliations and indignities from fools such as these.
Still, I have some concerns.
Once accepted, a first-time license application creates a “lifetime” customer identification number, and hence a customer record, or “profile”. I had always been under the impression that this electronic database and total licensing system was supposed to make it easier for me to purchase a license, without having to continuously provide documentation over and over again at every turn. I can only wonder who this system is really designed to help, because apparently it has not been put in place to help me. If it was, it does not seem to be working as promised.
One problem with a centralized and all-powerful system is that it is eventually directed by people who may not have your best interests in mind. They inevitably become judge, jury and executioner, and they can never seem to forgo the opportunity to play God with the wave a hand.
I refuse to be treated like a common criminal and dismissed like useless chattel by sales clerks who have failed to demonstrate the respect required to master some of the basic communication skills of the English language, particularly those who work for the ultimate purveyor of cheap plastic and Chinese slave goods. I will not let them use the color of law to ruin my day without returning the favor in full.
At the very least, I have a small but focused voice, and I will use it. I am also quite capable of managing a hair-raising scream or two when the occasion calls for it.
Impose your will unjustly, and you will gain my full attention. Treat me badly, and you will know that I have been there.
For now, I stand horrified in the knowledge that the information miners and the privacy thieves have penetrated so far into the remote and protected corners of my everyday life. I am left to gauge the parameters of the nightmarish, Orwellian uber reality in which I have been fully imprisoned.
You may witness me there, restlessly casting about for some remnants of my peace of mind, hot on the scent of my lost country.
I pray that I can occasionally find it in the unspoiled wilds at the edges of our memory.
No doubt it only gets worse from here.
Michael Patrick McCarty earned a B.S. Degree in Wildlife Biology from Colorado State University. He has worked in both the public and private sectors in a variety of capacities relating to fisheries and wildlife biology, water and environmental quality, and outdoor recreation. Michael and his wife steward a small acreage they have named Peach Valley Heritage Farms. It’s a “work in progress” for sure, but a little piece of heaven in the Rockies, just the same. Their work can be found at The Backyard Provider.