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Americans Love Public Lands And Species Conservation But How Do We Pay For Them?

Opinion: John Goodell says a new bill, "The Recovering America's Wildlife Act," offers a game-changing path forward

A bull elk in Yellowstone, its survival dependent upon having access to public and private lands. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
A bull elk in Yellowstone, its survival dependent upon having access to public and private lands. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Buried within the distracting melee of our current news cycle, an obscure piece of legislation is poised to modernize fish and wildlife conservation funding for the first time since the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. 


The legislation in question is the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, and its successful passage in the current Congressional session will require the support of all those that value fish and wildlife conservation, hunting and fishing, birdwatching, outdoor recreation and more.  In many ways it will require a leap of faith at time when trust and belief in government solutions is at an all-time low. 

The vast majority of Americans support clean air, clean water, and vibrant fish and wildlife populations—polls irrefutably confirm this—yet few understand how these values are supported. While conservation is possibly the most bi-partisan value in America, its funding remains one of the least democratically generated. 

Consider this hypothetical to underscore the point:
Imagine, if you will, a structural engineer standing in front of a town hall meeting, presenting a slide show about the condition of an old iron bridge connecting two towns across a major river. The bridge conveys thousands of commuters per day, between a city and its bedroom community. 

The engineer inspected welds and bolts, employed ultra-sonic equipment, measured spans, and made careful calculations. After crunching the numbers dutifully, the expert announces to the crowd that the bridge will fail within five years and recommends they support a tax proposal to replace it.

Few would dare doubt the rigorous math and science underpinning their safety and economic stability, thus the tax increase passes with broad support.  In essence, infrastructure, the cornerstones of community stability and growth, is typically supported by all citizens.

It’s no fun and defies common sense to reduce nature to a mere utilitarian value, but when grappling with conservation infrastructure, understanding dollars and cents is essential; especially when it’s fundamental to a new economy markedly different from the old one, Manifest Destiny. This flawed concept brought with it an unplanned frenzy to seize the vast public resource for a small private good.

Yet outdoor recreation is increasingly recognized as an economic bridge—conveying this boom and bust model of the Old West to to a path of dynamic growth and long-term stability.  

Over the past decades, outdoor recreation dollars have eclipsed traditional resource extraction industries like timber and cattle in many Western states, where picturesque mountain towns are home to rising real estate values, jobs, and per-capita income.
As an example, the Oregon outdoor industry generates $16.4 billion in consumer spending, $5.1 billion in wages, nearly 750 million in state and local tax revenue  and generates over 170,000 jobs – three times that of the wood products industry. 

While Wyoming’s population is only 13 percent of Oregon’s, the Wyoming’s outdoor economy is nearly twice as productive on a per-capita basis. Wyoming generates approximately $5.6 billion in annual consumer spending, $1.6 billion in wages and salaries, and $514 million in state and local tax revenue and about 50,000 jobs.  Interestingly the fastest growing sector of this growth national-wide is wildlife watching, which has out-paced hunting and fishing combined, and continues to grow. 
While Wyoming’s population is only 13 percent of Oregon’s, the Wyoming’s outdoor economy is nearly twice as productive on a per-capita basis. Wyoming generates approximately $5.6 billion in annual consumer spending, $1.6 billion in wages and salaries, and $514 million in state and local tax revenue and about 50,000 jobs.  Interestingly the fastest growing sector of this growth national-wide is wildlife watching, which has out-paced hunting and fishing combined, and continues to grow. 
Not surprisingly, the value of natural scenery, clean air and water, and abundant fish and wildlife populations polls high across all political and socio-economic spectrums. Yet when asked who pays for the resource stewardship, most assume their tax dollars are doing the necessary weight-lifting behind the scenes. They are wrong.

Unlike our bridge scenario, the bulk of state conservation funding is not generated by all citizens. There is no question that the US Treasury funded federal land management agencies like the Forest Service and BLM are essential partners in fish and wildlife management, and NGOs like The Nature Conservancy and others are jewels sewn into the fabric of conservation. However only state fish and wildlife agencies posses both the statutory authority and local capacity to directly assess, conserve, and restore fish and wildlife populations. But state fish and wildlife agencies are funded through a user pay/user benefit model and repeated attempts to change that funding structure have largely failed. 

Environmentalists and industry representatives alike often disagree passionately on conservation policy, but when legislation is proposed to broaden fish and wildlife funding, and strengthen agency capacity, stakeholders often become somehow united by an obstructionist bent. State by state, the predictable debate goes as such: 

Agricultural interests complain that big game and predator numbers are too high; litigious environmentalists are frustrated with what they consider antediluvian policies; hunters and fishers understandably want access and opportunity; and mainstream conservation groups patiently whisper for more attention to the other 90 percent of the species dismissively known as, “non-game.”  All-comers seem to be experts, and discontent often turns into a desire to weaken the agency further. 

Meanwhile exploitive industries reap the dysfunction.The agencies try to remind the increasing list of new stakeholders that they are a user-pay/user benefit based agency. Typically about 90 percent of their revenue is derived from fishing and hunting license sales and excise taxes, while those activities have declined by about 30 percent since the mid 1970’s. They plead for support for alternative funding noting their obligations have mushroomed beyond their original mandate: Severe wildfire, threatened and endangered species, climate change, energy development, ex-urban development, invasive species, and most ironically - new impacts from growing mass of outdoor recreationalist who do not hunt or fish.

Environmental advocates, the presumed allies of conservation, often demand change before they support a request for new funds. The agencies reply reminding non-paying constituents of their limited financial support and the chicken and egg argument goes around and around, day after day, year after year. The next morning biologists wake up with more problems and proportionally less money. The pie of conservation expenditures just gets sliced into increasingly finer slivers, but the total amount available to spend never grows. 
Environmental advocates, the presumed allies of conservation, often demand change before they support a request for new funds. The agencies reply reminding non-paying constituents of their limited financial support and the chicken and egg argument goes around and around, day after day, year after year. The next morning biologists wake up with more problems and proportionally less money. The pie of conservation expenditures just gets sliced into increasingly finer slivers, but the total amount available to spend never grows. 
A few conservation groups understand the problem is at is very core, structural, not philosophical. After all, natural resource professionals who work for state fish and game agencies, the Nature Conservancy, the Wilderness Society, the National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Forest Service – are all trained in the same schools, under the same professors, who all teach the same principles of modern ecosystem management since the 1980’s.

Nevertheless, the funding crisis has been a convenient opportunity to disparage the funding model itself. While its flaws are real – in the 1930’s it was a model of far-sighted genius. Unlike data-driven issues like climate change that require mathematical interpretation and congressional testimony; the architects of our conservation funding model were personally motivated by cataclysmic events witnessed with their own eyes. 
Throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century, market hunting, unregulated logging, grazing, mining and other pressures resulted in an unprecedented rate of species extinction never seen by the hand of man. In this now famous passage from Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1885),  Teddy Roosevelt gives a personal description of the carnage:

No sight is more common on the plains than that of a bleached buffalo skull; and their countless numbers attest the abundance of the animal at a time not so very long past… A ranchman who at the same time had made a journey of a thousand miles across Northern Montana, along the Milk River, told me that, to use his own expression, during the whole distance he was never out of sight of a dead buffalo, and never in sight of a live one.

Industry interests were in the midst of a free-for-all for unclaimed resources and these early conservationists understood the need for, not only the short-term emergency measures, but a permanent structure that would stand up to a permanent human quality: greed. It was a big problem that required a big idea. 

Western members of Congress in the early 20th century did not support conservation and sympathetic presidents came and went. Policy thinkers of the time wisely understood that conservation could not depend on Washington D.C. to reliably appropriate funds to the States due to the unpredictable pendulum swings of power. Within the inevitable cycles of foreign wars and economic strife, conservation funds would be the first to go. 

Yet to establish a conservation program, states needed permanent wildlife staff, species recovery dollars, and effective wildlife law enforcement - all requiring continuous funds over long timeframes. It’s not enough to make laws about land and animal use, agencies needed the predictable capacity to send game wardens on tours to check big game hunters in the Bob Marshal Wilderness; to monitor duck hunting on the wetland estuaries of the Great Salt Lake; to board commercial salmon fishing boats off Oregon’s nearshore; to check oysterman in the Chesapeake Bay; or to protect the sandhill crane population on the Platte River. 

Conservation takes permanent capacity, and up to this point no country in the world had achieved anything like it. European monarchs employed game keepers and private foresters to protect their exclusive land holdings, and everything else was simply pillaged.

In 1937, a conservation army of advocates, wildlife biologists, legislators, and civic groups came together to pass the Federal Aide in Wildlife Restoration Act. Otherwise known as the Pittman Robertson Act, and later the Dingell-Johnson Act, the bills were transformational. They created a federal excise tax on ammunition, firearms, archery equipment, fishing tackle and more – all collected and distributed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to state fish and wildlife agencies via annual grants. It was complemented by revenues generated through the sale of Duck Stamps, an invention of waterfowl hunter, conservationists and editorial cartoonist Jay "Ding" Darling. 
Newspaper cartoonist Jay "Ding" Darling didn't hold back in his crusading against loss of wetlands, hunting regulations and a new ethic in which users of natural resources also be tapped to pay for their protection.
Newspaper cartoonist Jay "Ding" Darling didn't hold back in his crusading against loss of wetlands, hunting regulations and a new ethic in which users of natural resources also be tapped to pay for their protection.
Together, these sportsmen generated federal funds along with the state sale of fishing and hunting licenses funds have comprised approximately 90% of state fish and wildlife agency budgets to this very day.

For at least a half- century, this model created a predictable, politically insulated stream of funds, fueling the most successful wildlife restoration effort in recorded history. Long before the Endangered Species Act, state fish and wildlife agencies tackled the cause with fervor. Through land acquisitions, transplantation projects, and effective enforcement, agencies brought scores of bird and mammal species back from the brink; the sandhill crane, bighorn sheep, bison, elk, beaver, river otters, sea otters, mountain lions, bears, continental populations of ducks and geese, countless species of wading birds, and more. 
Critics argued these herculean efforts were too focused on game and sportfish. While valid critiques abound, early commercial exploitation had largely targeted game and sportfish populations. But this priority also reflected the values of the vocal stakeholders at that time. By in large, there were two: sportsmen and a completely new group, birders. 

Teddy Roosevelt, who was often criticized for his blood lust was, in fact, an obsessive birder and radical protectionist. Hinting at a vision of the future Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918), Roosevelt revealed his avian passions in a letter to the New York Audubon Society in 1899:
"… I only wish that besides protecting the songsters, the birds of the grove, the orchard, the garden and the meadow, we could also protect the birds of the sea-shore and of the wilderness."

But birders of the era did not buy millions of dollars’ worth of binoculars, spotting scopes, bird guides, and bird seed. The national population at the time was less than a 100 million, and the only supportive stakeholder that could plausibly monetize conservation to the extent needed was the enormous firearm and ammunition industry, who saw their fate intertwined with the cause. Nobody at the time would have envisioned the explosion of such unconventional recreation as mountaineering, kayaking, mountain biking, or even camping.

Likewise, few could have predicted the escalation of legal mandates; the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act and many others. As congress began a long-term pattern of defunding federal natural resource agencies, the strain on state fish and wildlife agencies increased, while the before-mentioned hunting and fishing dollars continued to slide. 

In the late 1990’s, a coalition of 3,000 organizations and businesses recognized the pending crisis, and proposed a new bill.  Known informally as the “Binocular Bill” and "Backpack Tax" by some, the Teaming With Wildlife Act expanded the excise tax concept to include items like backpacks, sleeping bags, birdseed, binoculars, and field guides. 

While most outdoor recreation apparel/ gear companies have decisively branded themselves as conservation leaders, few knew that behind the scenes, this “green industry” were key players in killing the proposal. According to leading attorney in the outdoor apparel/gear sector, “excise taxes were toxic to the industry."
In the late 1990’s, a coalition of 3,000 organizations and businesses recognized the pending crisis, and proposed a new bill.  Known informally as the “Binocular Bill” and "Backpack Tax" by some, the Teaming With Wildlife Act expanded the excise tax concept to include items like backpacks, sleeping bags, birdseed, binoculars, and field guides. While most outdoor recreation apparel/ gear companies have decisively branded themselves as conservation leaders, few knew that behind the scenes, this “green industry” were key players in killing the proposal. 
To the handful of conservation historians familiar with the years leading up to the Federal Aide in Wildlife Restoration Act in 1937, it was humorously ironic that sporting arms and ammunition manufacturers, who embraced the excise tax concept in the 1930’s, ultimately won the prize as the more progressive conservation industry. (Groups like the Sporting Arms and Manufacturers Institute were instrumental in gaining the support of shooters, hunters and politicians to ensure passage of the Pittman‐Robertson Act).

The failure left a bitter, defeated mood in the conservation community, along with a maddening sense of confusion; why won’t the burgeoning outdoor recreation community put skin in the game? But from the ashes of the failed legislation, many conservationists had an epiphany born out of Roosevelt’s own big vision:

 “Our duty to the whole…bids us to restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations. The movement for the conservation of wildlife and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.” 

Fish and wildlife resources are a national heritage to be conserved for all people and, as such, their stewardship should be a democratically inspired commitment to the next generation; a commitment that should be undertaken by all. 
Hunters and anglers for generations have contributed to wildlife conservation by paying taxes assessed on the purchase of outdoor gear related to their pastimes. Why isn't there also a tax levied on outdoor gear and products used by non-consumptive users?  Shouldn't everyone who uses public lands, from downhill skiers and hikers to mountain bikers and river rafters, be expected to pay? It's a topic of debate and considerable pushback has come from outdoor retailers.  Photo of hikers courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Hunters and anglers for generations have contributed to wildlife conservation by paying taxes assessed on the purchase of outdoor gear related to their pastimes. Why isn't there also a tax levied on outdoor gear and products used by non-consumptive users? Shouldn't everyone who uses public lands, from downhill skiers and hikers to mountain bikers and river rafters, be expected to pay? It's a topic of debate and considerable pushback has come from outdoor retailers. Photo of hikers courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act HR 3742 (RAWA), recently re-introduced to congress, is the manifestation of that matured vision. The Act dedicates $1.3 billion annually, from the Treasury, to each States for implementation of their State Wildlife Action Plans, while also requiring at least 10% of the funds to be earmarked for threatened and endangered recovery projects at the state level. The bill also dedicates nearly $100 million per year of additional funds for wildlife conservation in tribal lands.

In essence the bill is not only transformational with respect to existing obligations, it is a revolution for the proactive conservation of ALL fish and wildlife species and their habitats. Built into the bill are strict sideboards – focusing funds on species of greatest conservation need. For hunters and fishers, it is taking a load off their back and may result in many agencies capping or dropping license and tag fees. 

Skeptics abound, and for many it’s hard to see how one piece of legislation could do so much. But history shows definitively that good funding legislation can be transformational. RAWA is that solution for the 21st Century. Don’t let the opportunity pass us by. 

AUTHOR'S NOTE: From my perspective, here are five things you can:

1.      Thank your member of Congress for supporting the Recovering America's Wildlife Act via social media (#RecoverWildlife), phone, or email.

2.      If they are not yet supporting the bill, ask your member of Congress to co-sponsor Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. You can also refer people toOurNatureUSA.com for an auto-generated letter.

3.      Consider signing the National Wildlife Federation's 1000+ group letter of support. 

4.      Consider joining the Alliance for America's Fish and Wildlife.

5.      Please share this info with your colleagues, family and friends. #RecoverWildlife

John Goodell
About John Goodell

Writer John Goodell is a wildlife biologist and owner of the environmental consulting firm Northwest Avian Resource. He the former museum Curator of Natural History at the High Desert Museum and holds expertise in wildlife monitoring, conservation planning, captive wildlife husbandry, and natural history interpretation. He is President of the Oregon Chapter of The Wildlife Society and is host of the podcast Northwest Nature Matters, highlighting science and conservation topics throughout the Pacific Northwest region. He is a former resident of Jackson Hole and Teton Valley
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