June 24, 2008
Using the Land, Then Paying for It

I don't like being badgered by supermarket clerks who ask if I want to donate $1 or so to this or that earnest cause, usually something to do with cancer research, so why didn't I mind when the bill at a restaurant the other evening included an optional $1 surcharge to help preserve wildland?

I suppose I gladly went along with the pitch because it was privately rather than publicly delivered. Also, we'd just hiked along one of the watersheds that would benefit, however slightly, from our small donation, and fond memories of the inspiring scenery during that trek left us in an appreciative mood.

Not all diners welcome the charge, however, concedes Buzz Crouch, manager and co-owner of New Moon Cafe in Nevada City, which is where we'd stopped for dinner on the way back to Sacramento. "That's why we provide a pen, so they can scratch it out," says Crouch. A few do, but other guests put the pen to another use, such as adding a zero to the $1 to increase both the amount of their bill and the amount of their donation.

"At the risk of being presumptuous, we added $1 to your bill to protect the spacious lands and emerald rivers in the northern Sierra foothills. If you object, we'll cheerfully deduct the amount. Simply cross it out," says a note with the bill.

New Moon Cafe began to add the levy about eight months ago, Crouch says, and so far has been turning over between $100 and $150 a week to the three conservation groups that evenly share the proceeds. The program is called "Bucks for Healthy Rivers and Trails," and the funds go toward restoring habitat, expanding trails, reducing sediment and the like of the Yuba River, Deer Creek, and Wolf Creek watersheds, says a statement on the Web site of one of the beneficiary organizations, the South Yuba River Citizens League. So far, the program has raised $5,720, says Dan Murnane, watershed education specialist for the South Yuba River Citizens League.

I wondered whether New Moon Cafe and other participating restaurants considered any alternative way to encourage diners to donate without upsetting them, such as saying that $1 of whatever tip they leave their server would go to the cause. Nope, says Crouch, he didn't, before reminding me that the tip option couldn't seriously be considered because it's illegal for a restaurateur to in any way tamper with a server's tips. That said, we look forward to our next meal at New Moon Cafe, and to using the pen only to sign the credit-card receipt, with the donation.

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