Last March, the Blue Ribbon Panel on Sustaining America’s Diverse Fish and Wildlife Resources issued its final report and recommendations, titled The Future of America’s Fish and Wildlife; A 21st Century Vision for Investing In and Connecting People to Nature. The report addresses a “fish and wildlife crisis,” which could lead to the addition of thousands of species to the federal threatened and endangered species list in coming years. The panel recommended a new source of dedicated funding for fish and wildlife conservation.
The recommendation is to have Congress dedicate up to $1.3 billion annually in existing revenue from the development of energy and mineral resources on federal lands and waters to the Wildlife Conservation Restoration program. This funding source would be similar to the revenue stream for the existing Land and Water Conservation Fund, but is not intended to interfere with or replace that fund.
The panel and its recommendation are the latest attempt in a more than 20-year effort to secure a funding source for nongame fish and wildlife management. Game species are funded through what is known as the North American Model, where license fees paid by hunters and anglers, as well as excise taxes paid on fishing and hunting equipment are dedicated to fish and wildlife management. This means most management efforts are intended to benefit game species. As a result, there is a concern that nongame species do not get the management attention they deserve.
Due the multitude of pressures humans place on the natural world, many nongame species are in decline. This is what the Blue Ribbon Panel is calling a “fish and wildlife crisis,” because states simply don’t have the money to successfully manage and maintain nongame populations. The pending crisis is as much a matter of economics as ecology. When species become listed as federally threatened or endangered, taking their needs into consideration, as required by law, is frequently disruptive and costly for businesses. Also, it is easier to protect a species and its habitat than to attempt to recover it from the brink of extinction.
This is why the Blue Ribbon Panel included representatives of major industries as well as conservation leaders.
It is fair to say many Americans recognize the intrinsic value of wildlife and the need to protect its habitat. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they are willing to pay for habitat protection.
About 20 years ago, there was an effort to create an excise tax on outdoor gear, similar to taxes on hunting and fishing equipment, that would be dedicated to nongame wildlife management. Called Teaming for Wildlife, it showed promise, but the plan never gained enough political momentum to become reality. Neither the outdoor industry at large nor their outdoor recreating customers rallied to the cause.
Since then, some suggest that an excise tax may not be the most effective or fair method of collecting new revenue for wildlife. The tax is collected only on goods produced and sold in the United States. On goods produced elsewhere, manufacturers argue they already pay high tariffs, which go the general fund. They would like to see those revenues dedicated to wildlife. Another funding option, private donations such as One Percent for the Planet promoted by Patagonia, simply cannot generate enough money to cover the needs for nongame fish and wildlife management.
This time around, promoters of new wildlife funding are pinning their hopes on HR 5650, The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act of 2016, which was introduced by Rep. Don Young of Alaska. The bill would “amend the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act to make funds available for management of fish and wildlife species of greatest conservation need as determined by State fish and wildlife agencies.” To do so, the bill would dedicate $650 million in existing offshore oil revenues and $650 million in existing mining revenues to a subaccount of the Pittman-Robertson Fund.
HR 5650 is a worthy endeavor. The fly in the ointment is Congress. Taking care of our nation’s fish and wildlife and its habitat is a low priority with our duly elected. A few months ago, the future of the Land and Water Conservation Fund was at risk. Even though they’ve since appropriated funds, Congress still hasn’t reauthorized this bedrock conservation legislation. We’ve seen diminishing appropriations for natural resource agencies, as well as tactics like “fire borrowing” where the U.S. Forest Service is forced to raid its own budget in order to cover the enormous costs of wildland fire-fighting. And now the Republican Party has made selling off our public lands a plank in the party platform. None of this bodes well for wildlife management or those of us who appreciate America’s wildlife and wild lands.
At the recent Outdoor Writers of America Association’s conference in Billings, Mont., proponents of HR 5650 said they are making a two-year push for the passage of the bill. Perhaps the odds of its passage will improve after the November elections. But it seems a long shot. Our political leaders are sharply divided over party lines and they operate within a moribund political system. It is fair to ask whether Congress could accomplish something as potentially game-changing (for nongame species) as HR 5650, even if they tried.
The Blue Ribbon Panel’s “fish and wildlife crisis” is real. As habitat disappears on the landscape, so do the critters living there. Creating a new funding source for non-game species may stem the tide. But our inability to do so despite decades of effort points to an underlying crisis for which there is no easy fix: the crisis of an ineffective Congress.