May 3, 2021 (LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS) – On April 29, Governors Sportsmen’s Caucus member Governor Asa Hutchinson signed into law House Bill 1957 (HB 1957), the Arkansas Sovereignty Act of 2021, which seeks to reaffirm second amendment protections within the state. Shortly before the enactment of HB 1957, Governor Hutchinson vetoed a bill with the same title. While both bills were similar, the previously passed Senate Bill 298 (SB 298) contained language that threatened the state’s ability to receive funding through the Federal Aid in Wildlife and Sportfish Restoration Programs.
During the legislative process to override the Governor’s veto of SB 298– which the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF) opposed in a letter to the legislature– Arkansas Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus Co-Chair and National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses (NASC) member Representative Jeff Wardlaw was able to quickly offer a different version of the bill that safeguarded Arkansas’s portion of the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration funding for the Natural State’s sportsmen and women.
“As a sportsman, I work hard so I can spend time in the woods and on the water with my family and friends,” said Representative Wardlaw. “Senate Bill 298 would have unintentionally resulted in less access to abundant natural resources here in the state. It had to be fixed, and that’s what we did with HB 1957.”
In 1937, Congress passed the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, also known as the Pittman-Robertson Act (P-R), that redirected an existing 11% excise tax on firearms and ammunition into a separate account in the United States Treasury that is to be used for wildlife conservation purposes with most of the revenue going back to state fish and wildlife agencies. Over the years, amendments were made to add handguns and archery equipment to the list of taxable items for this critical program. The program was so successful for funding wildlife management that anglers and the fishing industry supported a similar tax program on fishing equipment to be used for fish and aquatic resource conservation. In 1950, the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act, also known as the Dingell-Johnson Act, became law. The Sport Fish Restoration Act was amended in 1984 to expand the taxable items to include electric trolling motors, and motorboat and small engine fuels.
These sportsmen and women-supported taxes, along with hunting and fishing license fees, created what is known as the American System of Conservation Funding. It is a highly successful “user pays – public benefits” System that is unique to the rest of the world.
In 2020, Arkansas received nearly $18 million in funding through these programs, which equates to about 20% of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s budget. However, the language contained in SB 298 threatened the future of this funding for Arkansas. After SB 298 passed and was transmitted to Governor Hutchinson for signature, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission received a letter from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service – the administering authority of the Wildlife and Sportfish Restoration Programs – indicating the State of Arkansas would be out of compliance with the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Acts and would no longer be able to receive these funds. Essentially, the money that Arkansans have contributed to these programs through the purchase of equipment and fuel for their outdoor pursuits would go to other states. Fortunately, Governor Hutchinson vetoed SB 298 and provided time to clean up the language in an alternative bill—HB 1957.
Through the leadership of Representative Wardlaw, along with Arkansas Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus Member Senator Missy Irvin, a potential funding crisis for fish and wildlife conservation funding in the state was averted with the passage of HB 1957 in the waning hours of the regular session of Arkansas’s 93rd General Assembly.
Studies conducted at both the state and federal level have found that the number of hunters and trappers have been on a generally declining trend over the past several decades. To increase recruitment, retention, and reactivation (R3) of hunters and trappers, which initiative do you think would have the greatest impact?