Conservation Funding

Hunter participation has been declining nationwide for decades as the country grows more urbanized, all while state wildlife agencies’ responsibilities broaden

By Myers Reece

The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is largely a tale of towering achievement, the source of untold chapters and subplots that form sprawling conservation success stories in their own right.

But over the decades, changing demographics and priorities have complicated the narrative. Fewer Americans are hunting, more are participating in other outdoor pursuits, and the question of how to best fund the preservation of lands where all of that takes place, as well as the protection and management of the critters that roam those wilds, is increasingly convoluted.

The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is financially buoyed by two pieces of legislation: the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937 and Dingell-Johnson Act of 1950. The two bills helped lay a groundwork for funding wildlife conservation through a combination of excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment, as well as revenues from licenses sold to participants of those pursuits.

There are obviously other conservation funding sources — federal, state and private — not the least of which is the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. But those excise taxes and license sales, i.e. hunters and anglers, contribute the vast majority — up to 90% in some cases — of dollars for state wildlife agency budgets. They are the bedrock of the country’s “user-pay, public-benefit” system, spearheaded by sportsmen and women but benefiting the broader public.

But hunter participation has been declining nationwide for decades as the country grows more urbanized, all while state wildlife agencies’ responsibilities broaden. Diminished license sales have dramatically impacted agency budgets in some states.

Federal lawmakers have taken note of those concerns and worked to address it. The bipartisan Pittman-Robertson Modernization Act proposal is aimed at increasing hunter recruitment, while the similarly bipartisan Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would secure $1.3 billion annually to bolster state wildlife agencies’ conservation efforts. Congress hasn’t approved either bill, however. There are also grassroots efforts to recruit more hunters and diversify the pool of participants.

The original drafters of the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson bills didn’t foresee, let along account for, the dramatic uptick in other outdoor recreational uses over the decades, including hiking, mountaineering, kayaking, mountain biking and bird watching.

Conversations have swirled since the 1990s around the idea of a “backpack tax,” which would implement a similar excise tax on gear for those pursuits to be used in conservation and public-land management.

The Outdoor Industry Association has consistently opposed such a tax, on several grounds, one of which is that the industry already pays high import tariffs along with other taxes that generate billions of dollars in federal, state and local revenue.

The association also argues that hunting- and angling-generated revenues typically “feed directly back into those specific activities by focusing the investments to species and habitat restoration, hunter safety courses and industry-specific research.”

“This model does not work to shore-up the massive shortfalls of broader recreation and conservation funding,” the association states.

The very existence of that debate, however, along with legislative proposals such as the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, is a signal that Americans, who broadly agree on the importance of public lands and conservation, want to ensure that their favorite outdoor pursuits and wildlife havens are protected for future generations.

As always, it’s a question of money.   

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