Outdoor enthusiasts should put their money where their mouth is — and help pay Fish & Wildlife tab

The number of hunters is declining, leaving the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife with decreased funding at a time when outdoor recreation is booming.

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After years of hit-and-miss funding for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the state legislature might finally be poised to do something to improve the situation.  Unlike European nations, where fish and wildlife belong to the landowner, our model of conservation in the United States places fish and wildlife ownership squarely in the public domain.  State and federal agencies manage fish and wildlife on our behalf through programs that manage and monitor populations and habitat.  

It’s important work and it’s the reason why we have fish and wildlife at all.  Science-based management requires steady and sufficient funding, and up to this point, Oregon has had neither.

Hunters and anglers fund 50% of ODFW’s annual budget through  the sale of hunting and fishing licenses plus federal excise taxes collected on the sale of hunting and fishing equipment.  An additional 25% comes from other federal agreements and the remaining 25% is made up of a variety of funding sources (only 9% of which comes from the state general fund and lottery proceeds).  

The problem is, as our demographics shift from rural to urban centers, the number of hunters is declining, leaving ODFW with decreased funding at a time when outdoor recreation is booming.  In the woods, hunters are being replaced by the “REI crowd” of hikers, birders, campers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. But these groups aren’t covering the funding gap.

Through House Bill 2402, our state legislature is in the process of trying to identify new and stable funding sources for ODFW.  The taskforce is scheduled to present their final recommendation to the House Agriculture Committee on September 22nd.  

As of this writing, the taskforce has narrowed their recommendation to two options: 1) levy a beverage tax on wholesale distributors (essentially a sales tax); 2) add an income tax surcharge to everyone who pays Oregon income tax (low income residents exempt).  Both options spread the cost of fish and wildlife management across the broad spectrum of Oregonians while also capturing some visitor/tourist income.  Both approaches essentially say that fish and wildlife exist under the stewardship of the general public; therefore the general public should pay.

I agree, but I’m also disappointed.  The modern theme in this sort of funding taskforce is that someone who isn’t represented on the taskforce is identified as the one who should pay.  In this case, beverage wholesalers are being targeted because: 1) they already have a payment mechanism in place through the Bottle Bill; 2) there are relatively few distributors; 3) they weren’t present in the proceedings.  Such is the way of politics, but historically, it wasn’t always so.

Somewhere along the line, this idea of paying your fair share never made it out of the hunting and fishing community and into the outdoor recreation industry.  

I’d like to see the non-hunting outdoor enthusiasts, businesses, and non-profits do more to proactively fund our fish and wildlife management.  All those bird feeders, outdoor photos, hikes, and camping trips are enriched by the interaction between humans and wild creatures.  If there was an excise tax on bird feeders, hiking boots, and backpacking equipment, ODFW wouldn’t have a funding problem and the people who benefit the most from wildlife would be paying a little more for the wildlife they enjoy.

Unfortunately, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) has fought tooth and nail to prevent such funding.  OIA has at least one member on the ODFW funding taskforce and once again, the option to fund fish and wildlife through the sale of outdoor recreation equipment has been taken off the table as a potential funding source.  

For years, hunters and anglers have voluntarily picked up the check for wildlife conservation, and now that there are other groups benefitting too, these new groups should be picking up their fair share of the tab.  Fish and wildlife can’t and won’t survive against market forces without money to fund the science-based management that ODFW provides.  The ODFW funding taskforce has come up with two options that make sure all of us pay a little.  Now it’s time for the outdoor enthusiasts to reach for the check and voluntarily pay a little more.  It’s taxation for the greater good and it’s the right thing to do.