By: Mark Lance, Southeastern States Coordinator
“Conservation” is a term used often in the hunting and angling community and one that sportsmen and women celebrate. But what is conservation? According to Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the U.S. Forest Service and former Governor of Pennsylvania who established the modern definition, conservation is the “wise use of the Earth and its resources for the lasting good of men.” Thus, conservation covers management practices ranging from active forest management and wetlands restoration to planting a pollinator garden on your property, and even harvesting fish and wildlife in a sustainable manner consistent with science-based laws and regulations. Hunters and anglers were among the first to recognize that the utilization of sound science in management practices was key to ensuring America’s natural resources remained sustainable. Most sportsmen and women want to see our natural resources healthy and thriving so that we can all continue to enjoy them and pass our sporting traditions down to the next generation.
Above all else, conservation is an investment, and investments require funding. State fish and wildlife agencies across the United States continue to do a tremendous job of conserving fish and wildlife resources and their habitats through the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, and they are able to do so thanks to funding from sportsmen and women generated through the American System of Conservation Funding. However, with the increasing rate of inflation and the difficulty of increasing hunting and fishing license fees, some state fish and wildlife agencies have had trouble funding critical conservation projects. This has pushed many state legislatures to look at additional avenues of funding to support their respective fish and wildlife agency, such as a dedicated sales tax on outdoor goods.
I am a lifelong Mississippian that grew up in the woods and on the water enjoying all the many outdoor recreation opportunities that my home state has to offer. I fell in love with the outdoors at an early age, and I saw the passion that my family had for ensuring that the land and water which we had the opportunity to hunt and fish on were managed to support healthy fish and wildlife populations. As I went on to high school and through college, I learned how the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP) works to ensure that Mississippi’s publicly owned lands and waters provide quality outdoor recreation opportunities for the public, educates the public about natural resource conservation, and manages the wildlife that call Mississippi home. The MDWFP operates primarily off the funds generated through license sales purchased by sportsmen and women and the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration federal funds, but there are often pressing conservation needs that require additional funding.
Last year, National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses (NASC) Executive Council Member and Mississippi Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus Co-Chair Representative Scott Bounds introduced House Bill 1231 to establish the Mississippi Outdoor Stewardship Fund which would be funded by redirecting a portion of the state’s existing sales tax on outdoor sporting goods. This dedicated sales tax revenue would have provided up to $20 million per year to support wildlife conservation projects and would not increase hunting and fishing license fees or taxes for the public at large. This effort provided hope for many sportsmen and women in the state that we could provide additional funding for conservation projects carried out by the MDWFP as well as many of the in-state and national non-governmental organizations.
Investing in conservation benefits Mississippi’s fish and wildlife resources and outdoor sporting heritage, and HB 1231 legislation would have enabled the state to leverage additional private and federal matching funds for conservation work. Unfortunately, HB 1231 hit a roadblock during the legislative session and ultimately died, but it generated positive discussions, which will continue in advance of the 2022 legislative session, about conservation funding needs in the state.
Similarly, the Louisiana State Legislature adopted House Concurrent Resolution 55, sponsored by NASC Executive Council Member Representative Jerome Zeringue, which established the Outdoor Conservation Study Group to evaluate potential dedicated conservation funding mechanisms for the state. This is the first step in complementing the new license fee restructure that was passed during the 2021 session; but Louisiana, like other Southern states, continues to have natural resource management challenges that will require additional funding.
For conservation to have the greatest impact, work must be conducted on private lands as well as public lands. Wildlife knows no property lines, and neither should conservation. While state fish and wildlife agencies can conduct conservation work on publicly owned lands and water unencumbered, most of the land in the South is privately owned and requires voluntary and often incentive-based agreements with individual landowners prior to work commencing. With over 85% of both Louisiana and Mississippi in private ownership these private lands provide a real opportunity to make significant conservation advances, but to do so additional funding will be required.
The legislative efforts undertaken in Louisiana and Mississippi have set the stage to create dedicated conservation funding mechanisms that would put them in line with many other states across the Southeast. States without a dedicated conservation funding mechanism leave millions of dollars on the table every year because they cannot provide the funding to qualify for federal conservation programs. For example, funding is available through the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Acts that match state dollars at a 3:1 ratio. States could also leverage funds for habitat work through Farm Bill programs which provide $6 billion annually for conservation on private lands across the United States.
These are great returns on investments, and I look forward to continuing to support efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi to establish dedicated conservation funding and hope other states will consider supporting similar efforts for the benefit of their natural resources and outdoor traditions.