By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Merry Christmas to one and all, and here's to hoping every outdoorsman reading this got everything they wanted, whether it's a new gun, a new fishing pole or a pair of binoculars.

As people who love the outdoors, we're all alike, no matter what our pursuit might entail.

And we're also able to help the great outdoors, simply by giving and receiving the presents that we love the best -- even if we have to give them to ourselves.

That's why this column first started out as a discussion about how Karl Grover and Ron Klastaske are following divergent paths to get the same spot.

That path came about when they were discussing how best to respond to the arrival of whooping cranes at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Management area in early November.

In a manner of speaking, they were both right. And they were both wrong.

Of course, they each come to the table from prospective positions:

* Klataske is executive director of Audubon of Kansas, by all accounts an environmental group whose mission it is to protect and preserve wildlife. It's not an anti-hunting group, but its focus is on preservation first.

* Grover is a wildlife biologist and manager of Cheyenne Bottoms for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. It is a state agency, whose primary mission is hunting, fishing and camping. While management for hunting is high on its list of priorities, its preservation efforts, while hard to gauge, are not entirely absent.

In both cases, Klataske and Grover reflect the people they represent, and pay for their operations.

But when Klataske suggested, on an electronic birding mailing list, that not enough was being done to protect the whooping cranes, the objecting response from Grover was swift.

That discourse was the subject of considerable discussion among birders, so I learned when I spokes to several during a during a quick trip down to Cheyenne Bottoms to join in the excitement of spotting the highly endangered birds.

For Cheyenne Bottoms, and Quivira to the south, this has been a banner year for attracting whooping cranes.

All told, nearly 50 birds stopped off at the two sites, and during that time, I was able to enter realm of birding excited by spotting as many as 17 whooping cranes. While they were a fair distance away, my new set of 10-power binoculars brought them much closer.

It was more difficult with the camera equipment at hand, but I was able to snap a few dozen photos that showed the birds in all their glory.

Three birds, in fact, started flying my way, only to turn slightly so as to avoid me. I was able to discern that the three were two adults and a juvenile, whose rust-colored feathers were clearly visible.

An therein lies the problem.

These three birds, and others like them, had been on mud flats in Pool 3B, even though the entire pool had been closed -- marked by blaze orange signs that told of the whoopers' presence.

But as they flew roughly to the south, they passed over pools where hunters were lying-in-wait for unsuspecting waterfowl.

And yes, I had a bit of a problem with that.

I'm don't dare cast aspersions on the hunters in adjoining pools, simply because I didn't know them. But there always a danger that disaster could have happened.

It didn't, fortunately, and the cranes continued their south-ward travels to some point, although they quickly slipped out of view.

It's easy to see Grover's point that hunters pay for the operations at Cheyenne Bottoms, as much of the funding for KDWP comes from license sales.

But as I passed through, the hunters came from Arkansas, Texas and elsewhere. Only the hunter in the pool adjoining the whoopers was from Kansas.

Klataske, meanwhile, was concerned we aren't doing enough to protect the whoopers, while Grover said we're walking a fine line of allowing hunting and bird watching while still protecting the birds.

My exposure shows we're simply not doing enough to protect the birds.

While I was at Cheyenne Bottoms, a KDWP truck drove past the whoopers, but didn't slow down. It was hard enough to make a count while standing still, much less while driving. And I had the help of two other obviously more-experienced birders.

So how do you fix a problem when both people are right?

Well, you take a new innovative step. And it's right in front of us.

You see, much of the work at Cheyenne Bottoms likely has and is being accomplished through a federal excise tax on guns and ammunition.

Now, consider that bird watching is the powerhouse of outdoor activities, far outstripping hunting and fishing. Kansas has 493,000 birders.

So here's what I propose:

Let's levy the same tax on birding equipment that is put on shotguns and rifles and ammunition.

With $12 billion in equipment sales to birders, and 11 percent tax would be considerable, as in $1.3 billion.

Imagine what could be done with that money once it is doled out to the states -- including Kansas.

Wetlands could be purchased or improvements made in existing areas.

Maybe, just maybe, the money could be used to sync the common words of Klataske and Grover, and arrangements could be made to ensure the safety of such a massive and regal bird.

Of course, we'd have to get our illustrious members in Congress to move the matter forward. So take that as a hint Jerry Moran, Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback.

Put a tax on birding equipment. I'll gladly pay my share.

What better gift could we give than helping secure the future of wildlife, not to mention getting a new piece of sporting equipment along the way?