WDFW Looks At License Increases

Even as the price of gas doubled and the value of a dollar decreased 22 percent from one end of last decade to the other, for the better part of the 2000s, it’s cost most Washington sportsmen around $22 for an annual freshwater fishing license, $33 for a small game permit and $40 for a deer tag.

True, those prices jumped in the middle of 2009 after the state Legislature added a two-year 10-percent surcharge to license fees to help cover a $30 million shortfall in funding for the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife.

But now, faced with continued budget difficulties into the mid-2010s and an end to that temporary fee next June, the agency is considering asking lawmakers for an increase in base license prices.

While figures that show some large increases for hunters are now out there, it’s unclear how much prices really will rise.

Through various sources at WDFW, I’ve known for awhile the agency has been working on ways to raise more money, but yesterday the Othello Outlook ran a story by Yakima-based outdoor writer Jim Pearson. State big-game manager Dave Ware met with he and other members of Washingtonians for Wildlife Conservation in Ellensburg late last month, and Pearson writes that bear tags could jump 85 percent, special hunting permit applications 111 percent.

I phoned Craig Bartlett at WDFW HQ in Oly. He’s a spokesman for the agency, and after a brief chat he went off in search of hard numbers to share with me.

A half hour or so later he called back. He’d just talked to deputy director Joe Stohr.

“‘He could look at what’s on my screen,'” Bartlett says Stohr said before Stohr added, “‘Wait, a bunch of stuff has changed.'”

This hasn’t changed, however: While WDFW’s drift boat has run some of the rocky rapids of the state budget’s Sol Duc River over the past few years — shedding crewmembers and taking on water and significant dings — there’s still some bad-ass boulders ahead through the mid-2010s for director Phil Anderson et al to navigate.

Yesterday afternoon Barlett emailed me a four-page brochure WDFW has put together, “Facing the Future; WDFW looks for new ways to meet its basic mandate.”

It basically runs down how $35 million in state General Fund money was slashed from the agency’s budget during the 2009-11 biennium to help cover a $9 billion shortfall in statewide revenues.

The cuts cost the jobs of 163 staffers, and most of the 1,349 or so who remain at WDFW (along with almost all other state workers) must take 10 unpaid days off this year and next.

They’re working harder these days, trying to get through to fishery and hunt managers and biologists takes longer, on the phone you can hear a slightly crazed cackle in some employees’ voices that wasn’t there a year ago (or maybe that’s because of reporters calling about really stupid stuff), the Weekender report now only rolls out once every month and even once-weekly internal documents have been cut back to every 30 days or so.

Unfortunately, the financial forecast continues to look grim through 2015, with a projected revenue shortfall to state coffers of $3 billion in 2011-13 and a whopping $8.8 billion for 2013-15.

With the fat gone, Governor Gregoire this summer warned all state agencies to find meat to trim.

As much as Evergreen State hunters and anglers know the value of wildlife and habitat — as well as the economic impact, some $6.7 billion a year, it generates — the fact remains that WDFW is lined up like Little Oliver behind heavyweights such as public schools, health and prisons.

According to the agency, those three alone slurp up 88 percent of the General Fund. WDFW’s share from that trough slipped from 32 percent of its overall funding to 23 percent between the 2007-09 and 2009-11 budgets.

At the same time that General Fund dollars shrank, so too has federal grants and matching dollars.

There was, however, a pretty substantial bump in the state Wildlife Account between the bienniums, from $63.6 million to $86.9 million. Our license fees go directly into that fund, and just as Oregon saw a pretty good jump in resident fishing permit sales — the highest license sales of the decade — so too has Washington.

During the April 1, 2009-March 31, 2010 license year, nearly 940,000 fishing permits of all kinds were sold, a 14 percent jump over the year before, and the most going back to at least 2001-2002, according to figures I got several months ago from Bartlett.

That same day he also told me that WDFW’s new way to sell special hunt permit applications this year yielded around $450,000 or so more over 2009.

But the economy giveth and it taketh.

The hit WDFW took in the 2009-11 budget could be matched in 2011-13. Fish & Wildlife documents show the agency may face another $10 million to $20 million drop in its General Funding as well as see an $11 million drop in the Wildlife Account as the 10 percent surcharge expires and a one-time transfer of $5 million is spent.

That from a PowerPoint file Bartlett emailed today.

It’s the one from Stohr’s computer screen yesterday, the “Wait, a bunch of stuff has changed” document.

Still, the presentation — entitled “WDFW Fiscal Sustainability, Revenue and Efficiency Legislative Proposals, September 10 (Regional Fisheries Enhancement Group) Meeting — shows WDFW’s mindframe moving forward and outlines what’s at stake when cutting those two funds so sharply.

With the General Fund, it’s salmon hatchery production and selective fishery monitoring, fish and wildlife officers and habitat protection and restoration.

For the Wildlife Account, still more law enforcement as well as axing support staff for fisheries and hunts which could lead to reduced opportunities.

There’s more at risk, but those are the sexy hot button programs sure to incite howls to senators and reps from those of us who fish for fin-clipped Chinook, rail about rampant poaching and call for more ranches and farms to be bought and protected from development.

So then, how do you come up with the coin to cover the tab?

Well, fellas, that’s where you and I come in.

I couldn’t get specific numbers out of Bartlett, but that PowerPoint file shows the agency wants to “strategically price” our fishing and hunting license increases to, among other things, “recover lost purchasing power” since the last rise.

At the same time it calls for keeping the price of permits for youth and senior sportsmen low.

They’d keep “basic” licenses — deer tags, small game licenses — “affordable” to Joe Sixshooter and attract nonresident sportsmen, but put a premium on quality deer and elk hunts; second tags; goat, sheep and moose permits; and hunts that require extra staffing, such as snow goose, brant, sea duck and Canadas in Southwest Washington.

Elk tags would be “competitively” priced in line with elsewhere in the West, and bear and cougar licenses would be offered separately and hiked to create the feeling they’re “premium” hunts.

A fishing excise tax, something we would pay on gear, was considered, though according to the PowerPoint document, is not being pursued for the next session “due to an anticipated lack of support for new taxes.”

It’s nice to see, though, that WDFW’s not only looking at asking hunters and anglers for more, but also wants to pass the hat to other users. After all, if wildlife watching is a $1.5 billion a year industry, shouldn’t the binoculars-only brigade pay some of the freight for managing to have critters around? The “hundreds of thousands” who use WDFW lands for bird watching, traipsing, skipping, letting their dogs poop and other nonconsumptive uses may pay much more than we do for vehicle access permits.

Commercials could also see increased fees while the agency would start billing to process permits to work near water as well as bring up to date the cost to build cell towers, train dogs and cut trees on WDFW lands — unchanged since early in the second term of the Reagan Administration.

None of it’s a done deal. Many fee increases will require Legislative approval next winter — we’ll see what sort of stomach Dems and Republicans have for that as the recession drags on.

And before sportsmen sign on, WDFW will surely hear a few fiery questions from us, such as:

Will future hunting and fishing opportunities be worth paying more for?

How can we be sure that increases will go directly to opportunities instead of armchair bios in Olympia or unrelated programs?

And where’s the balance point, as Pearson asked Ware, between increased prices, sportsmen declining to buy into it and the department thus losing customers and dollars?

Meanwhile, WDFW is reaching out to stakeholders, like Pearson’s group and lawmakers, and comments from sportsmen can be sent to future@dfw.wa.gov. Over the next few months, the agency will continue to work on its revenue proposal inhouse and with others. Then, on January 10 of next year, the Legislative session begins.


2 Responses to “WDFW Looks At License Increases”

  1. $2.2m To Be Trimmed From WDFW Budget « Northwest Sportsman Says:

    […] 2011-13 budget and asked them for ideas on how to fill the gap by later this month. WDFW has been looking at potentially increasing license costs and other fees to address […]

  2. ‘Eliminating Steelhead Fishing In Puget Sound’ Rivers « Northwest Sportsman Says:

    […] a legislative session where the agency conceivably needs sportsman and -woman support for lawmakers to pass license and other fee increases to stabilize its budget as well as again possibly fend off merging […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: