Voices from the River: Who pays to play?

by Randy Scholfield

The state of Colorado last month passed a fee increase for resident fishing and hunting licenses, which will go up by $8 next year.

And no, I’m not mad about that—this is one “pay to play” scheme I’m proud to support.

A Colorado fishing license is my Golden Ticket, after all—the Keys to the Kingdom—bestowing on me rights to fish our state’s world-class public waters.

It’s an incredible bargain, even with the fee increase, and a smart investment in the future health of these irreplaceable resources. But one thought kind of nags at me: Why should anglers and hunters bear so much of the financial burden of supporting our state’s fish and wildlife habitat?

Colorado Parks and Wildlife, like most state wildlife agencies, depends overwhelmingly on hunting and fishing license fees, and excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment—nationwide, almost 60 percent of state wildlife agency funding comes from hunters and anglers.

Here in Colorado, the fishing license (currently $25 for in-state annual permit) hadn’t been raised since 2005—and since then, CPW expenses have climbed 25 percent, and the state’s population has boomed. That’s why the Colorado General Assembly approved the modest fee increase ($8 for resident licenses), which will begin in 2019, with any future increases tied to the consumer price index.

Surprisingly, perhaps, there’s been very little grumbling about the hike among sportsmen and women.

David Nickum, Colorado TU’s executive director, told me, “I think hunters and anglers understand that Colorado’s wildlife and natural spaces are among our most valuable resources—and that we need to invest in our outdoor quality of life. This fee authority will help ensure that future generations have access to the same quality hunting, fishing and recreational opportunities available today.”

But there is trouble on the horizon, with the ongoing decline in the number of American sportsmen. With millennials (and to be fair, all of us) spending more and more time in front of electronic screens than out in nature, will Colorado and other states experience at some point a chronic funding gap? How could we create a more sustainable and equitable revenue stream for addressing our conservation priorities?

While fishing participation is up somewhat, hunting is in steady decline in this country. Only about 5 percent of Americans age 16 and older hunt – about half of what it was 50 years ago. And the trend is expected to continue.

True, paying licenses and fees gives hunters and anglers a loud voice with agencies in how these lands are managed. In fact, some sportsmen don’t want other recreationists having that kind of clout.

Still, I think we need to think about how to get more skin in the game from other recreationists such as hikers, bird-watchers and outdoor photographers.

Why shouldn’t these constituencies—most of them well-heeled—pay more of their fair share to keep our fish and wildlife habitat in good shape for future generations?

An excise tax on recreation equipment such as binoculars and backpacks – like that long imposed on ammunition and fishing equipment -- would be one way to go. But it’s strongly opposed by the outdoor industry and could be a hard sell.

Congress has explored tapping oil and gas revenues and a few states have imposed general sales taxes to support conservation, according to this good NPR report that highlights the problem. But we’re far from any consensus.

In this recent session, Colorado lawmakers also reauthorized the use of state lottery revenue to help fund GOCO—Great Outdoors Colorado projects to keep our state’s trails and parks in shape. It’s been a popular and impactful program, and perhaps it’s another model to look at for getting the public’s buy-in.

As one blue-ribbon report has warned: “Without a change in the way we finance fish and wildlife conservation, we can expect the list of federally threatened and endangered species to grow from nearly 1,600 species today to perhaps thousands more in the future.”

I don’t have the solution—but it’s important to have that discussion. For now, I’m happy to pay for my Golden Ticket, and proud that anglers and other sportsmen are doing their part to keep Colorado wild and healthy.

But we need new ideas about how to attract young people to the outdoors, and how to build a broad recreation constituency willing to pay for our outdoors quality of life.

Randy Scholfield is TU’s director of communications for the Southwest.


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