With the recent economic downturn, it’s no surprise that many units of government have turned to increased charges and fees to keep budgets balanced. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is no different. In May of 2011, the DNR warned that if the cost of hunting and fishing licenses were not increased, the state Fish and Game fund might go into the red:
What may be surprising though, is that sporting groups like Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever are some of the biggest proponents of an increase. What’s more, the members of these groups are the people most likely to pay the higher cost, and they’ve pushed for these types of increases for nearly 80 years.
The Pittman-Robertson Act, a federal law enacted in 1937, dedicated the monies from an existing 11% excise tax on sporting rifles, shotguns, and ammunition to the 50 states and territories for management and restoration of wildlife. Since then the Act has been amended to include an excise tax on handguns, handgun ammunition, and bows and arrows; a similar law enacted in 1950 covers fishing equipment. For FY 2012, the US Fish and Wildlife Service will disburse over $256 million pursuant to act, and Minnesota will receive of $7.6 million. The Minnesota DNR depends on the federal dollars for about ¼ of the State Fish and Game fund, which receives no general fund (property tax) dollars.
The federal “Duck Stamp” act is a legislative contemporary of Pittman-Robertson. Enacted in 1934, the proceeds from the sales of duck stamps are dedicated solely to wetlands acquisition for conservation purposes (incidentally, Minnesota’s three Hautman brothers are some of the most prolific duck stamp artists in the last two decades).
While whitetail deer, wild turkeys, and Canada geese are quite ubiquitous in the Twin Cities, they were on the brink of extinction in the 1930s. Their resurgence is due in no small part to acts like Pittman-Robertson, and Duck Stamps. They continue to thrive today; largely due to decreased hunting pressure, and therein lies the problem. Demand for hunting and fishing licenses, and Duck Stamps, as well as excise taxes like Pittman-Robertson, are relatively price elastic. Hunting and fishing enthusiasts have historically been willing to pay more to preserve their pastime; but fewer people hunt and fish than they used to, and fewer young people are taking up these sports.
Minnesota and other states will need to consider the long-term sustainability of their natural resource programs if they are going to continue to depend on user charges and fees.