Saving Our Wildlife Legacy
By Lee E. Perry, Director, N.H. Fish and Game Department
Something everyone has a stake in -- the future of our state's wildlife and wild places -- is at risk. The guardian of these resources, the N.H. Fish and Game Department, will be out of money soon, unless its antiquated funding structure is changed. This financial crisis comes at a critical time, when New Hampshire is losing 18,000 acres of land to development each year, placing wildlife, habitat and outdoor recreational opportunities in jeopardy.
Fish and Game today is a modern wildlife agency responsible for conserving the state's fish, wildlife and marine resources -- a complex organization with an ever-expanding set of duties and mandates that benefits all New Hampshire's citizens and visitors. Our work protects open space, scenic beauty and wildlife resources that create jobs and fuel our economy as people enjoy these resources.
As has been widely reported, Fish and Game faces a financial shortfall because revenue is not keeping pace with the rising cost of doing business. The department works for everyone, but hunters and anglers in New Hampshire -- about a quarter of the state's population -- have always paid for the agency, and the benefits we provide, through license fees and Federal excise taxes on their equipment. The people of New Hampshire contribute $50,000 to Fish and Game each year from the General Fund as matching funds for nongame wildlife and habitat conservation -- just 3.8 cents per resident. The vast majority of New Hampshire's state agencies are supported almost entirely by the state's General Fund.
Across the U.S., fish and wildlife agencies are struggling to survive under the traditional funding model. Already, 31 states have changed how they fund their state wildlife agencies, to allow them to meet their missions without relying solely on hunting and fishing fees. Some get money from income or sales tax; others, including Vermont and Maine, from annual General Fund appropriations.
What can N.H. Fish and Game do to get on firm financial footing? As a stopgap measure, we've asked Governor Lynch to put $1.6 million per year of General Fund revenue into the Fish and Game budget in FY2008 and 2009. Without these funds as a temporary fix, we will have to lay off as many as 28 full-time workers and eliminate 36 part-time positions, as well as closing hatcheries and regional offices -- dramatically reducing our ability to serve New Hampshire.
In the past, we've coped with budget crunches by raising license fees, but that won't work this time. They're already the highest in New England; also, the data tell us that we'd lose money after another fee increase because participation would go down. The Fish and Game budget is bare-bones, totaling $27 million annually -- we've already eliminated staff and dug deep for possible efficiencies.
And so, we need a long-term plan. One proposed legislative strategy is to capture some of the $579 million that hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers pump into the state's economy each year by allocating a small part of the state rooms and meals tax to Fish and Game. Here's how it would work: Currently, hotel and restaurant patrons pay an 8% tax. Some of that money goes to the Department of Revenue to administer the program; what's left is divided between municipalities (40%) and the General Fund (60%). Fish and Game seeks to capture a small portion -- just 4% of the 60% that goes to the General Fund, or about $4.6 million. Since hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers pay about 7.4% of the total rooms and meals tax collected in New Hampshire -- more than $13 million annually -- we believe that it makes sense to reinvest some of the money into the resources that generate it.
Many citizens and media outlets seem to understand Fish and Game's need for a new revenue source, and have offered support. Even those who have criticized our approach acknowledge that everyone who benefits from Fish and Game's work should be asked to contribute. As a recent Concord Monitor editorial put it: "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."
In the coming months, the State Legislature will consider several measures to provide the funding needed to save New Hampshire's wildlife legacy. Their actions will determine not only the future of Fish and Game, but of the wildlife, woods and waters that add so much to our quality of life.