By: Kent Keene, Lower Midwestern States Coordinator
“The key is diversification!” How many times have you heard financial advisors, either on television or in-person, make this statement? For some, the link between diversification and conservation funding may seem abstract. However, there is some merit to applying this concept to how we view conservation funding in the United States. To understand what I mean, just ask your state fish and wildlife agency how their funding has been impacted by the recent declines in hunting and fishing participation.
As sportsmen and women, we take a lot of pride in knowing that our contributions provide considerable funding for fish and wildlife management in the United States. In fact, the “user pays – public benefits” American System of Conservation Funding (ASCF), through money generated by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and revenue from self-imposed excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, archery equipment, fishing tackle, and motorboat fuel, has been the primary funding source for most state fish and wildlife agencies for more than 80 years. Unfortunately, hunting and angling participation has seen overall declines since the 1980’s. Clearly, this presents a serious financial threat to the future of conservation. Though the growing participation in recreational shooting has been able to pick up some of the slack, the downward trend in participation among sportsmen has opened the eyes of those who now realize that most states have all their eggs in the sportsman’s basket. Though nearly every state is looking to address the declining participation rates in an effort to revitalize the ASCF, others have found supplemental opportunities to fund wildlife and fisheries conservation and management efforts, as well as opportunities to maintain and improve access and opportunities for sportsmen and women to participate in activities like hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting, among others.
One of the most successful supplements to the ASCF can be found in my home state of Missouri. Back in 1976, Missouri voters approved of a 1/8 of 1% sales tax that was to be permanently allocated to the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). In recent years, this tax has consistently generated about $120 Million annually for MDC and comprises nearly 2/3 of their annual budget. Arkansas followed suit in the late 1990’s, and other states began exploring the idea in the 2000’s. Now, another Midwestern state is trying to cross the finish line with their own Conservation Sales Tax.
In 2010, Iowa’s legislators and voters approved the creation of the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund (Trust). Based on the original spending formula, much of the trust would be allocated to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to help fund soil, water, and wildlife conservation, and enhance public outdoor recreation opportunities. Back in 2010, more than 60% of Iowa’s voters approved of the creation of the Trust and favored an associated 3/8 of 1% tax increase necessary to fund it. Unfortunately, the tax increase never came, and the Trust is still empty.
Though forced to wait all these years, support for a tax increase to fund the Trust has actually increased among Iowans. Recent surveys conducted by the Iowa Water and Land Legacy found that 69% of Iowa’s voters support a 3/8 of 1% sales tax dedicated to the Trust. Clearly, Iowans understand the importance of investing in clean waters, improved soils, and enhanced wildlife habitat. Following the disastrous flooding events of 2019, interest in funding the Trust has reached a new high and gained some powerful support.
During her 2020 Condition of the State Address, Governors Sportsmen’s Caucus Member Governor Kim Reynolds expressed her desire to see the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust finally funded. As part of her larger tax reform plan dubbed the “Invest in Iowa Act,” Governor Reynolds has prioritized funding the Trust that she originally voted for 10 years ago while she was a member of the Iowa State Senate, albeit under a slightly altered allocation formula. “These investments will not only aid our conservation efforts, they will improve our quality of life and help us retain and recruit a new generation of Iowans,” said Governor Reynolds during her address. Following the Condition of the State Address, Governor Reynolds hosted a series of Town Hall meetings throughout Iowa to answer questions and spread the word about her intentions to, among other things, #FundTheTrust.
With Governor Reynolds’ support, there is a renewed energy and sense of hope surrounding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. With the introduction of Senate Study Bill 3116 and House Study Bill 657, Iowans began to see the light at the end of the tunnel for the first time in a decade. Unfortunately, these bills, and the future of the Trust, seem to have stalled due to the lengthy suspension of the 2020 legislative session due to the COVID-19 outbreak that is impacting our nation.
However, “hope springs eternal”; and we will get through this, and the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF) will continue to work hard by maintaining this momentum and encouraging the legislature to approve Governor Reynolds’ vision for the Trust so that Iowans can finally begin to reap the benefits associated with investing in a reliable supplemental source of conservation funding.
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