Forget User Fees to Fund Fish and Game Department

Concord — November 25, 2006 — The Department of Fish and Game, which is expected to be self-supporting, is almost broke. A big decline in the popularity of hunting and fishing – and, consequently, in license sales – is usually cited as the reason.

License sales have plummeted, but the real fault lies in the state’s bedrock attitudes about who should pay to protect its environment, economy and quality of life. There are two basic answers to that question: “anybody but me,” and “make the users pay a fee.” The problem is, everyone’s a user but not everyone pays. That should change.

This year, New Hampshire’s general fund will spend roughly $1.3 billion or $1,020 for every resident. Of that $1,020, $33 will go for resource protection and conservation. Of that $33, the Department of Fish and Game gets 3.8 cents. That’s why the agency faces staff and program reductions large enough to permanently impair its ability to protect the state’s resources.

Over the past year, the department has received hundreds of suggestions for ways to raise the $5 million or $6 million more it needs each year. It has whittled those down to a handful of preliminary proposals. These ideas are at the top of the list: requesting half the money raised by the 8 percent rooms and meals tax, licensing saltwater anglers, auctioning off a handful of moose hunting permits and requiring users of non-motorized boats to buy an annual $10 decal. The last of the four would bring in $1.5 million.

Those aren’t the only ideas out there. The New Hampshire Lakes Association has suggested that all craft using the state’s waters, including the tens of thousands of motorboats brought in from other states, be required to bear a $20 annual conservation decal.

The moose permit auction is harmless entertainment that would raise a little bit of money. And the saltwater license, given the dire shape of New England’s fishing stocks and the need to learn more about the impact of sport fishing, may be necessary.

The proposed fee for canoes, kayaks, rafts and other paddle craft is squarely in New Hampshire’s tradition. Canoeists and kayakers, now that their numbers have increased, do affect wildlife, and their cars take up space at launch sites. But taxing them would make the state less tourist-friendly and raises an equity issue.

Paddlers, who often own several boats, have less impact on the environment and cost less to manage than the hundreds of thousands of people who hike the state’s trails. And neither group is as large as the one made up of wildlife watchers. Those groups often pay little or nothing.

Fees are a disincentive to tourism and a burden on those who must find low-cost ways to enjoy the outdoors. Nor can fees ever catch all the different classes of users who benefit from Fish and Game’s work.

The truth is that everyone reaps rewards from the department’s work, and that’s true in spades in a tourist state like New Hampshire. If everyone benefits, everyone should pay. Lawmakers should dedicate half the rooms and meals tax revenue to Fish and Game or, to spread the burden as widely as it deserves to be spread, fund the agency with a portion of the revenue from that tax and the business profits tax.

User fees eventually fail because they must be increased to keep up with escalating costs. When hunting and fishing license prices rose repeatedly, people stopped buying them. The user fee path, if followed, will turn New Hampshire into a pay-to-play theme park. It’s the wrong approach, and it won’t work in the long run.

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