On Wisconsin! Conservation Funding Requires Leadership
For a state ranking fifth nationally in licensed hunters and sixth in licensed anglers while generating $8.7 billion and 89,000 jobs in outdoor recreation annually, why do we settle for 50th in helping folks enjoy our state parks?
Actually, that’s easily explained. Our legislators will never be confused with U.S. Army Lt. Arthur MacArthur Jr., father of the legendary General Douglas MacArthur.
Quick history lesson: Lt. MacArthur originated the battle cry, “On Wisconsin!” Yes, the opening words of the Wisconsin Badgers’ famous fight song at UW-Madison.
At age 19, Arthur MacArthur Jr. yelled “On Wisconsin!” at the Battle of Chattanooga to spark an impromptu Union assault on Missionary Ridge during the Civil War. Grabbing and waving his unit’s flag after its previous bearer was shot dead, MacArthur ran full speed at the Confederate lines while suffering two wounds. His fearless 24th Wisconsin Infantry regiment surged after him, inspiring 15,000 more Union troops to follow and smash the Confederate center. MacArthur’s bravery earned him a promotion and Medal of Honor.
If our lawmakers had been there, they simply would have sniveled, “Dig and duck, guys. Don’t let the Rebels see us!”
Lawmakers weren’t always so lily-livered. The 1995-97 state budget approved by a GOP-controlled Senate and Assembly, and signed by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, allocated $334.3 million in general-purpose revenues for the Department of Natural Resources. In contrast, the 2021-2023 budget from our GOP-run Legislature and signed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers gave the DNR $197.5 million in GPR funding. Note: GPR comes from Wisconsin’s general fund, which accrues from our sales and income taxes.
That 41% decrease doesn’t even account for inflation. If you factor that in, GPR funding actually fell 69% from the adjusted $632.2 million.
In fact, before 1995, Wisconsin paid for its state parks with equal parts GPR, user fees and other dedicated funds. But when lawmakers passed Wisconsin’s 2015-17 budget, it eliminated all GPR funding for state parks. Therefore, Wisconsin spent a mere $19.6 million in 2017 to run those parks, which equates to $1.08 per park visitor, ranking us last in annual surveys by the National Association of State Parks Directors.
Those are just a few interesting details in a new report (http://bit.ly/3Zf6k8r) on state conservation funding, released March 24 by the Wisconsin Policy Forum. The WPF is a nonpartisan research group funded by Pheasants Forever, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, Wisconsin Realtors Association, Godfrey & Kahn law firm, Gathering Waters land trusts, Audubon Great Lakes, and the Community Foundation of the Fox Valley Region.
It’s not as though Wisconsin isn’t worthy of wise conservation spending. Outdoor recreation produced 2.4% of the state’s gross domestic product in 2021, ranking it 16th among the 50 states, and above the 1.9% national average. Further, Wisconsin’s timber/forest-products industry ranks second nationally in employment, generating 61,000 jobs and over $6.9 billion in economic activity.
Unfortunately, Wisconsin lawmakers have spent much of the past two decades acting as though conservation just happens, that state parks just run themselves, and that residents will forever benefit from our natural resources by simply ignoring them.
And even though we rely heavily on user fees for state-parks upkeep and operations, we do little to increase those funding sources. In contrast, Michigan lets drivers buy a state-parks entry pass for their vehicles when renewing license plates. Given that convenience, nearly 30% of Michigan motorists buy the window sticker annually, compared to Wisconsin’s 15% rate. As the WPF study notes, if Wisconsin doubled its roughly 600,000 state-park sticker sales, it would generate over $16.6 million in annual revenues, or $5.5 million more than our current system.
Wisconsin’s hunters and anglers play an even larger funding role in the state’s outdoors. Besides buying and using many state-park passes, hunters and anglers generated $70 million in gross sales of hunting and fishing licenses in 2019, or fourth nationally.
In fact, hunters, anglers and trappers typically support increased conservation funding, and get frustrated with lawmakers who claim they’re helping outdoors-oriented taxpayers by nixing fee increases on hunting and fishing licenses. Lawmakers have not raised license prices since 2005, when it made the deer license $24 for residents. If that price had kept pace with inflation, we’d pay $37 for resident deer licenses today.
Wisconsin’s fish and wildlife programs – which receive about 80% of their funding from license sales – have struggled with the price freeze. That’s why 15 hunting, fishing and other conservation groups joined forces in 2019 to urge lawmakers to break that impasse. Groups backing a fee boost included the WWF, Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Wisconsin Conservation Congress, Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association, Wisconsin Bowhunters Association, Wisconsin Trappers Association, Wisconsin Waterfowl Association, Wisconsin Green Fire, The Wildlife Society-Wisconsin Chapter, Safari Club International, Ruffed Grouse Society, National Deer Association, National Wild Turkey Federation, Great Lakes Sport Fishermen, and the Wisconsin chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
In other words, lawmakers could have increased license fees and received a standing ovation without fear of political bloodshed. Instead, they played it safe, hoping the DNR could continue plugging $4 million and greater budget shortfalls with unpredictable funding from the federal Wildlife Restoration Act, i.e., Pittman-Robertson Act, which hunters, anglers, archers and shooters also fund through federal taxes on hunting, fishing, firearms, ammo and archery purchases.
In Gov. Evers’ current budget proposal, he suggests raising the trout stamp from $9.75 to $14.75 to generate $700,000 more revenue the next two years, and increasing nonresident deer licenses from $160 to $182.25, for a projected $600,000 in revenues.
But why stop there? Wisconsin offers over 400 licenses and “approvals” for hunters and anglers. If lawmakers played it safe by matching fee increases to recent inflation rates, they’d generate over $24 million in new funding through deer, fishing, small game and patron licenses for residents and nonresidents alike.
Yes, lawmakers would have to weigh those fee increases against the potential loss of some license sales, but their predecessors took that chance often. They knew the drop would be temporary, and usually bounce back the next year.
If anyone doubts that, consider spending more time in other folks’ trucks, camps, ice shanties and fishing boats. A quick scan of gear owned by everyday hunters and anglers reveals that hunting and fishing license fees aren’t even a drop in their individual buckets.
Per person, license fees are mere vapor. But combined, vapors spark explosive conservation funding. Lawmakers need to embrace that reality.
Anglers and hunters build strength through numbers. These perch anglers lined up at dawn to catch a boat ride to the Clements fishing barge on the Mississippi River near Genoa, Wisconsin. — Patrick Durkin photo