Column: Increase California’s share of fishing conservation funding

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife will receive almost $41 million, a near-record amount, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 2015 revenues generated by excise taxes sportsmen pay on firearms, ammunition, fishing, and boating equipment. More than $1.1 billion, in all, will be distributed to the 50 states’ fish and wildlife agencies.

This single year’s payments to the states represent nearly 10 percent of the total paid since the program began in 1939 with the passage of the Pittman-Robertson (P-R) Wildlife Restoration Act. This act taxed firearms and ammunition at a 10 percent rate, designating all funding to go to the conservation and restoration of wildlife through distribution to the state game agencies. Over the years the program was modified, with the tax increased to 11 percent for some item, and taxes on archery gear added to the funding. In addition state-managed hunter and firearm safety education programs were included in the apportionment. In 1950 the Dingell-Johnson (D-J) Sport Fish Restoration Act was passed and placed a similar 10 percent tax on sportfishing tackle, some boat engines and small engine fuel. This funding is allocated to the states only for use on fishery restoration programs and public boat launch and marina facilities.

The money from both acts is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS); the programs, perhaps the most successful wildlife conservation program in the country, are completely funded by excise taxes requested and championed by those being taxed: hunters and fishermen.

Together the FWS sent over $12 billion back to the states for fish and wildlife restoration programs since the two acts were passed.

The amount of money in P-R Fund has skyrocketed during the Obama Administration. During the last year of the Bush Administration the P-R Fund hit a record high of $267 million, pushed to its highest level ever because of a boom in gun and ammunition sales the last two months of the year after the election of Barrack Obama. Fear-buying of firearms and ammunition, especially since Obama’s second term, has broken all firearm sales records as his rhetoric and actions on gun control have ramped up. As a result the P-R Fund has soared. For 2014 the total fund amount hit $760.9 million — more than three times the highest total ever recorded before Obama became president. In 2015 the amount dropped just a little to $760.1 million, as the panic buying eased.

Meanwhile the D-J Fund has continued to grow at a more incremental rate, little changed from previous administrations.

Two points to be made from this data:

First: California should be the number one recipient for both P-R and D-J funds. The money is allocated on a formula that takes into account the state’s geographic size and the number of hunting or fishing licenses it sells. The state home to the nation’s third largest land size, most public lands in the continental United States, and highest population in the country, you’d think we’d be number one in license sales and should receive the highest possible allocated amounts.

We are tops for D-J sportfishing funds, receiving the maximum $18 million and change — the same as Alaska and Texas. But on the hunting side we are 16th in license sales, making our disbursement amount $22.9 million, or about $10 million less than the number one state of Texas.

The California DFW has done a terrible job of promoting the great hunting and fishing we have in this state. I have written repeatedly about how fishing license sales have declined by more than 50 percent and hunting license sales by more than two-thirds during the last 40 years — and that is during the same time frame the state’s population has nearly doubled. We have more fishing opportunity today than when I was a kid, and the hunting opportunity hasn’t declined much. Yet we face massive regulatory nightmares to get into either sport today. The DFW is why license sales have declined.

Second: Why are hunters and fishermen really the only ones funding fish and wildlife restoration and management in this country? If other people who have a concern for fish and wildlife — from people who watch birds at a window feeder to backpackers who marvel at bighorn sheep in the Sierra to campers who enjoy seeing a coyote in the local mountains — why don’t they pay a similar excise tax on outdoor equipment to support wildlife?

People with bird feeders spend about $3 billion a year just on wild bird seed. The outdoor recreation industry estimates there is more than $120 billion a year spent on outdoor products, everything from specialty apparel and footwear to camping gear and recreational vehicles. If there was a 10 percent excise tax on those items, just birdseed would bring in $300 million for conservation efforts. Put an excise tax on everything from RVs to binoculars to hiking boots would raise about $12 billion a year for wildlife.

Some environmental kooks deride hunters and fishermen as destroying wildlife populations, which is a blatant lie. Not only do we fund most of the real conservation work done in the United States we seem to be the only ones today who understand all healthy wildlife populations can sustain a “harvest,” and human hunters or fishermen are just as entitled to that deer or trout or quail harvest as coyotes or cormorants or Cooper’s hawks. The reality is more wildlife is probably killed by the speeding vehicles of non-hunters than hunters kill by design. And everyone who adds to the road kill statistics don’t pay anything toward the cost of keeping tabs on or managing the population of tree squirrels or bobcats they crush under their tires.

If you care about wildlife why not ask your legislators for an excise tax on outdoor recreation products modeled at Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson?

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