The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) needs around $30 million to cover a shortfall for the 2019-21 biennium, and recreational enthusiasts who pay fees to enjoy many outdoor activities may end up picking up part of the tab. The agency intends to submit a $60 million funding strategy to Governor Jay Inslee and the state legislature calling for a combination of increased state dollars along with fee hikes.
The extra cost to recreationalists could either be a 12-15 percent across-the-board increase on all licenses, or a single annual $10 fee charge.
There are 20 separate state and federal recreation passes and permits available in Washington for activities such as fishing, hunting and hiking trailhead parking. These fees help WDFW oversee the state’s fish and wildlife resources that include 81 hatcheries for commercial and recreational fishing as well as 33 wildlife areas.
The agency has six regional office and is run by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission composed of nine citizen members appointed by the governor. The commission also appoints the agency director. Roughly half of the department’s $437.6 million budget for the current biennium comes from the state via the General Fund and the Wildlife Account, but the agency also relies heavily on recreational fees to cover its spending. Per biennium, hunting license revenue brings in $45.9 million, while fishing license revenue generates $65.9 million for the department. In comparison, Discover Pass revenue is $3.6 million per biennium.
According to WDFW, its budgetary problems first started in 2011, when the state legislature cut support to the agency by 31 percent that biennium in response to the Great Recession. The department states that their funding has not been fully restored since.
Further hampering efforts are restrictions imposed by the department’s funding sources for over half their budget. The agency’s Budget and Policy Advisory Group is made up of members from the private and public sector, including foresters, tribal and local governments, and recreational groups. According to their May 2 meeting minutes, the group was in agreement that “over time, lack of stable, adequate funding has brought about adverse and non-productive outcomes including competition between stakeholders for scarce resources and insufficient investment in habitat protection and restoration in species of most concern especially non-game fish and wildlife.”
“This has contributed to a lack of sustainable and productive hunting and fishing opportunities and put Washington at substantial risk of a crisis in fish and wildlife conservation,” the minutes state further.
That decrease in outdoor recreational opportunities could also hit state coffers. According to a July 23 presentation by Policy Director Nate Pamplin, for every dollar invested into the department from the general fund, it brings in $3.5 to the state from the economic activity generated by activities such as hunting and fishing overseen by WFDW.
As part of the 2017-19 operating budget, the legislature directed WDFW to do the following:
- Develop a long-term plan to balance project expenses and prioritize spending cuts
- Identity management efficiencies
- Develop a “zero-based” budget review for its proposed 2019-21 operating budget
A January 2018 report on the department by Matrix Consulting Group concluded that WDFW “spends significant effort coordinating its activities with the tribal entities in the state” and the need to work with 29 in-state tribes creates “a more complex operational environment compared to other fish and wildlife departments in other states.”
Among the consulting group’s report’s recommendations was obtaining state authorization for the department to increase fees based on a “cost factor” such as cost of living or consumer index.
The Budget and Policy Advisory Group notes that “with few exceptions, user fees have not increased in ten or more years, and many of the newer, growing user groups do not participate directly in Department funding the way hunters and anglers historically have.”
Yet, it warns that these fees “should be affordable and accessible; fee schedules should provide accommodation for the young, elders, families, and low-income users.”
The minutes states further: “Hunter and angler participation numbers are declining while other outdoor recreation such as nature watching, hiking, ATV riding, mountain biking, horseback riding, and recreational/target shooting growing popularity. Managing a diversity of users with different priorities and interests increases the potential for user conflict and demands more services and attention from the Department.”
During the July 24 presentation, Pamplin noted the department also has worries that possible fee increases could price out some anglers and hunters. He added that “we’re (also) concerned about the optics of proposing a fee increase when there isn’t a commensurate increase in opportunity. Those are two very tough situations for the department to be in, and it’s been a real challenge articulating that to individuals where there are those concerns.”
WDFW’s long-term funding plan is due to the legislature by September.