John H. Sullivan

Viewpoints: Funding plan would balance support for California's wildlife

Published: Friday, Mar. 1, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 15A
Last Modified: Saturday, Mar. 2, 2013 - 1:32 pm

With California's Department of Fish and Game now renamed "Fish and Wildlife," there's no better time to match the new name with new money. The legislation making the name change noted that the department "has evolved from being primarily focused on managing specific species for hunting and fishing to one that includes resource conservation and protecting endangered species."

This evolution began decades ago. Since then the department has been struggling to string together pockets of money beyond fishing and hunting license sales to handle its new and growing responsibilities. I was chief deputy director of Fish and Game in the early '90s when we launched a plan to work with natural communities of wildlife instead of specific species and published a "Vision for the Future." Neither contained ideas to pay for the new approach.

Now is a good time to take a fresh look and, as they say out in open country, "just git 'er done!" The plan? First, look at working models that have been with us for the better part of a century.

One is the federal Robinson-Pittman Act, enacted in 1937 to raise money from an 11 percent tax on sporting guns and ammunition to fund grants to states to improve wildlife habitat. In 1950 a sport fishing counterpart, the Dingell-Johnson Act, was passed by Congress to tax fishing equipment to help states improve fish habitat and wetlands.

These taxes are supported by the sporting goods manufacturers who pay them. The two laws were enacted and amended over the years with support from Democrats and Republicans and have bipartisan support to this day. Never in my years of fishing and hunting have I ever heard a sportsman complain about paying higher prices because of them.

California should get similar funding from its millions of residents who enjoy and treasure our wildlands and wildlife but do not fish or hunt.

I believe that most would be willing to do this through their purchase of binoculars, camping equipment and other outdoor gear. A recent U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife study shows this plan is feasible and justified.

Every four years U.S. Fish and Wildlife produces a "National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation." The survey, published in December, reported that anglers nationwide spent $6 billion on fishing gear, hunters spent $8 billion on hunting equipment, and wildlife watchers spent $13 billion on binoculars, cameras, wild bird food, tents and backpacking equipment.

To be counted as wildlife watchers, people must show a special interest in wildlife around their homes – birdhouses and bird feeding – or travel for the primary purpose of wildlife watching. Visiting a zoo doesn't qualify.

Raising Fish and Wildlife funds from wildlife watchers is a fair way to support wildlife. An equitable list of equipment might include kayaks, canoes and mountain bikes, items not included in the $13 billion federal figure. With a broad but fair application, an outdoor equipment revenue-raising plan could work with a tax considerably less than the 11 percent on hunting and fishing gear – low enough not to encourage out-of-state trips to make purchases. A 1 percent tax on retail lumber sales was enacted with bipartisan support last year to fund environmental reviews of California timber harvest plans.

This funding source would build more support for the Department of Fish and Wildlife and its mission. Instead of raising more money and more ill will via developer fees, the department would be raising money from people whose recreation lives are intertwined with the outdoors. With creative incentives, the department could open more lines of communication with this constituency and increase overall support for conservation and wildlife education – especially in giving more young people experiences in nature.

Mission and funding studies done by and about the Department of Fish and Game over the past 20 years have produced reorganization charts but few new dollars.

California should act now to become the first state to solidly fund the protection of all its wildlife. We have habitat and wildlife diversity unequaled by any other state, more than 1,100 miles of coastline, 4,955 lakes and reservoirs, 103 major streams and 74 major rivers, desert habitats, high mountain peaks, 1,000 species of vertebrate and 150,000 invertebrate animals, 8,000 plant species.

We have a governor who is protecting open lands that have been in his family for generations.

California author Wallace Stegner two decades ago wrote optimistically of the new people of the West – people whom he believed would "work out some sort of compromise between what must be done to earn a living and what must be done to restore health to the earth, air and water."

Balancing our support for wildlife would be a great step toward this goal.

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