Monday, January 11, 2010

No Pay, No Say

From Fly Rod + Reel online by Ted Williams.
Note - I am involved with the Vermont Wildlife Partnership that is pushing for broad based, adequate and sustainable funding for the VT Fish and Wildlife Department

Even in the best of times, the funding system for state fish and wildlife management is grossly inadequate. But three states have implemented partial fixes, and Congress may soon offer federal relief.

No Pay, No Say

By Ted Williams

... Missouri is one state in which the sporting culture never devolved. Rather than puffing about the accomplishments of their dead ancestors while attempting to preserve their power base by fighting public funding, Missouri sportsmen built a management model for the nation. It wasn’t easy. The Conservation Federation of Missouri—which includes virtually all the state’s hunting and fishing outfits—started its campaign for increased revenue for the Missouri Department of Conservation in 1969, 32 years after it had shepherded through a constitutional amendment to establish the agency. The federation sponsored a ballot initiative that would have raised $20 million a year by levying a one-cent tax on each bottle of soda. But the drive withered under intense lobbying by the St. Louis-based Seven Up Inc.

Smarter and tougher from that defeat, the federation launched a campaign for another ballot initiative, this time for a one-eighth-of-one-percent state sales tax, with proceeds to be allocated to the Department of Conservation for fish, wildlife, and forestry. Resistance was formidable. The Farm Bureau ranted endlessly about what it called a “government land grab.” And if there’s one thing legislators hate, it’s dedicated funding because it circumvents the appropriations process and makes them feel nonessential.

...And for all the enlightenment in state wildlife agencies and all the evolution in America’s sporting culture, there is still no shortage of knuckle draggers to preserve good-ol’-boy networks. Nowhere is this more apparent than in otherwise progressive Vermont, where, as in so many states, the Fish and Wildlife Department is nearly busted. Between 1987 and 2008 sales of hunting licenses declined from 111,542 to 80,831, sales of fishing licenses from 161,014 to 122,642. The agency has gone begging to the legislature for extra funds, never with good success, and it has been laying off staff and leaving positions open.

So the department’s former commissioner, Steve Wright (then the National Wildlife Federation’s northeast representative), and Patrick Berry (then communications director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council) helped develop a legislative mandate for a study committee that would explore alternate funding. And they helped put together a support coalition called the Vermont Wildlife Partnership with a strong, diverse membership of 60 groups—from Wright’s and Berry’s outfits to Trout Unlimited to Audubon Vermont to the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.

In due course the study committee hatched a proposal (Vermont has no ballot initiatives) to redistribute one-eighth-of-one-percent of the existing sales tax to the Fish and Wildlife Department. Of every 48 cents collected, 31 would go to the general fund, 16 to the education fund, and 1 cent to the Fish and Wildlife Department. It wasn’t much, but it would boost the agency’s paltry budget from about $14 million to $20 million.

“Governor Jim Douglas has a mantra of ‘no new taxes,’ ” says Wright. “The word on the street was that just at the end of the 2007 legislative session, his office found out about the study committee and sent over one of its heavies to proclaim that the governor wouldn’t sign the bill unless he could appoint committee members.” Co-chairing the committee was Douglas appointee James Ehlers, who had gained public attention by whipping sportsmen to a froth of paranoia with hook-and-bullet-rag harangues about alleged plots by greenies who, he charges, are “equating the constitutional rights of humans with the supposed rights of bugs.”

Current Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Wayne Laroche—an Ehlers acolyte who once wrote that wilderness sacrifices “tangible values to achieve the ‘spiritual’ values of the so-called environmentalists at the expense of traditional users”—had been propelled to office by the anti-wilderness, pro-clearcutting, pro-mechanized-access-at-any-cost Hunters, Anglers, and Trappers of Vermont (HAT), which Laroche used to serve as a director. HAT perceives alternate funding as a plot to keep its members out of the woods and turn over wildlife management to anti-hunters. Basically, Laroche killed the sales tax proposal when he announced to the press that it was “imprudent.”

“The whole process became a tragicomic opera,” says Wright. “Laroche got up and gave an hour-and-a-half PowerPoint about all the things the department was going to do and how it wouldn’t need any more money. If you had been there, you’d have laughed out loud. Then Ehlers talked about everything the study committee hadn’t done—‘Yes, I co-chaired the group, and our members agreed on an eighth-of-a-percent sales tax, but they didn’t say how the money would be spent. . . .’ ”

The other co-chair of the study committee was Jim Shallow, conservation and policy director for Audubon Vermont. “I don’t have a lot of hope for the near term,” he told me. “The fiscal situation here is really bad. We just had a budget enacted over a gubernatorial veto.”

In most states, an element of the general public complains that it is denied a voice in wildlife decision making. But if it wants a say, it has to pay. Moreover, I have always questioned the fairness of “user-fee” funding in which hunters and anglers are taxed on their equipment when they’re already giving the general public a free ride by providing it with national wildlife refuges purchased and managed with duck-stamp revenue, by providing it with permanently protected state lands and waters with their license revenue, and by protecting it from irruptions of ungulates. Under today’s regulations no species is remotely threatened by hunting or fishing, and a few (that would otherwise overpopulate) are benefited. The general public should pay for protection and restoration of its fish and wildlife, but the people who should pay most are those who hack, gouge, and poison habitat. There ought to be a “resource-extraction tax.”

2 comments:

  1. From another article by Ted Williams concerning Bluebacked trout in Maine:
    Even as the tragedy was unfolding on Big Reed, bucket biologists were creating another at Wadleigh Pond, which had been providing the best Arctic char fishing in the state. Alien smelts were discovered there in 2006. Like Big Reed, Wadleigh is on the small and shallow side for char water. Frost reports that its char are already in decline. There is no plan to evacuate survivors or to use rotenone to kill the smelts. The department says it doesn’t have the funds.


    Native-fish advocates argue that the department could divert funds from wasteful and misguided programs such as splake production. Maybe so, but these advocates need to redirect some of their bile toward the public and the legislature, both of which appear perfectly content with a funding system that has made effective fish-and-wildlife management impossible in states like Maine (i.e., most states), where virtually all revenue comes from fishing, hunting and trapping licenses and federal excise taxes on guns, ammo, hunting equipment, fishing tackle and motorboat fuel. If all state residents contributed to fish-and-wildlife management in Maine (as they do through sales taxes in Missouri, Arkansas and Minnesota), wild char would now be recovering in Big Reed and Wadleigh, and populations in the other 10 native char ponds would be well-studied and surveyed.
    More at: http://www.flyrodreel.com/magazine/2010/wither-maine-char

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