Will higher rec fees fly?

Will higher rec fees fly?
A proposal by the Fish and Wildlife Commission for a 15-percent across-the-board increase on recreational fees was met with apprehension from state lawmakers at a Sept. 12 meeting of the House Appropriations Committee. Photo: Roger Phillips

A proposal by the Fish and Wildlife Commission would raise recreational fees for activities such as fishing and hunting by 15 percent to help fill a $30 million shortfall in its upcoming budget. However, a strong case may have to be made to sway state lawmakers, particularly those who represent districts with strong ties to the outdoor industry.

Last month the commission approved the measure as part of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW)’s proposed 2019-21 budget that seeks in part $30 million in additional funding from the state legislature. The proposal would allow for a bundle purchase which would cap fishing license packages at $7 and $15 for hunting license packages. The commission is also seeking authority to adjust fees for inflation.

Nearly a third of the $30 million requested would go toward fisheries and hatchery production. The requested state money would also pay for the Columbia River Salmon and Steelhead Endorsement first authorized by the legislature in 2009. That program allows anglers 15 years or older who fish for salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River to purchase an endorsement that funds efforts to expand fishing opportunities in the Columbia River Basin.

Since 2010, more than 1.4 million endorsements have been sold, generating over $10.3 million in revenue.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, Washington’s outdoor recreational industry provides 201,000 direct jobs and generates $2.3 billion in state and local tax revenue. WDFW notes that every dollar invested into the department from the state general fund generates $3.5 to the state from outdoor activities such as hunting and fishing.

Testifying in support of the agency’s funding request was Conservation Northwest Founder Mitch Friedman. “The department has a lot of challenges. None of that gets better by funding the department less. We need this department to succeed, and it needs to be funded properly to succeed. That’s why we support the fee increase.”

However, some House Appropriation Committees members expressed apprehension regarding the fee hike during a Sept. 12 work session. Rep. Brandon Vick (R-18) said recreational anglers in his district have been asking more frequently “If I’m going to be asked to pay 15 percent more…and the state is at least tinkering with the idea of maybe rolling back the Columbia River fishing…how does that work out in my favor? How is that fair?”

WDFW Policy Director Nate Pamplin told Vick that “we’re seeking a pretty modest increase, but we recognize that any increase folks are (asking) ‘Well, what is the commensurate opportunity increase as well, and that’s a real challenge for us.’”

Skepticism was also expressed by Rep. Joe Schmick (R-9). “I have the Columbia and the Snake River anglers, and they’re reluctant to see higher fees or to buy the endorsement where there aren’t more fishing coming up for them….”

Pamplin said the agency is aware of the concern and that in the past “there was a lot of trust issues about where the department was investing recreational revenue.”

The fee hike might also discourage prospective outdoor enthusiasts from getting a license, exacerbating an ongoing problem highlighted during the meeting by Bill Clark, a lobbyist for the nonprofit Trout Unlimited.

“Looking at the license trends, the picture is not necessarily good,” he said. “There’s a group of people 35-65 that are license holders…as that group ages out, the age group coming up behind those folks are not buying fishing ang hunting licenses like the groups that are right now. The more increased pressure you have on the price, you could have downward pressure on actual revenue.”

He added that although he also supports a fee increase, it shouldn’t be relied on solely to adequately fund WDFW’s activities. “For your constituents, you can say it’s not just on the backs of license-fee holders. The general fund level of increase and the license fee-based level of increase have to go hand-in-hand. That reflects what we hope will be a 21st Century fish and wildlife agency.”

One of the possible ways the higher fee increase could fly is with a corresponding increase in hatchery production. Roughly a quarter of WDFW’s budget pays for hatcheries, and the Fish and Wildlife Commission recently directed the agency to look at how to produce 50 million more Chinook and Coho.

WDFW reports that its hatchery production of juvenile salmon has declined in recent years due to a combination of Endangered Species Act (ESA) permitting requirements, hatchery reform measures and budget cutbacks.

However, Pamplin told panel members that to meet the commission’s goal for 50 million new salmon it will likely require the state to build additional hatchery facilities.

Pamplin added that even if the legislature meets the agency’s funding request, it would take several years for the new salmon to have an impact, though with trout it could be sooner.

The agency’s budget will ultimately require approval from the full legislature during next year’s session.

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