Time has come to up your ante

Published October 8, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is looking for new funding sources to help protect the state's natural resources.

It costs about $204-million a year to manage and preserve Florida's fish and wildlife. About 25 percent of that comes from the state's general revenue fund.

This is money well spent. When you add it all up, Florida hunting, fishing and wildlife-watching expenditures contribute $7.8-billion to the state's economy.

Anglers and hunters play a big role in maintaining the resource. License revenues and taxes on hunting and fishing equipment generate $41.8-million for fish and wildlife management.

This "user pay" system has helped make Florida's resource management system one of the best in the country. But even with the majority of the users paying their fair share to protect our natural resources, Florida's conservation programs face an uncertain future.

State officials estimate that by 2010, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will be operating at a $13.8-million-a-year deficit. That is because when it comes to licensing, the state's anglers and hunters have a sweetheart deal.

"I hunt and fish all around the country," FWC board member David Meehan said. "Our fees are among the lowest in the nation. If you buy hunting or fishing licenses in Florida, you are getting quite a bargain."

At a recent meeting in St. Petersburg, Meehan and other FWC officials discussed various ways to increase funding for wildlife and fisheries management.

One suggestion was for anglers and hunters to voluntarily put an extra dollar toward the resource each time they renew their licenses. In an average year, about 3-million hunting and fishing licenses are sold or renewed statewide. If everybody kicks in, an extra $2-million to $6-million could be raised in the first year.

Michigan implemented a similar program several years ago. Anglers and hunters filled in a "check off" box noting their donation at the license office. Revenues increased 4 percent the first year, 9 percent the second and 18 percent the third year.

Another option is increasing the cost of licenses. The state's hunters and anglers have not seen a price increase since 1989. But as the cost of doing business (running patrol boats, all-terrain vehicles, etc.) has risen, license revenues have remained static.

If Florida increased its freshwater fishing license fees just $5, another $1-million could be raised for resource protection. If salt- water license fees were increased, an added benefit might be decreased fishing pressure.

Perhaps the best idea floated at the September meeting was to make shore-based anglers pay their share. These 300,000 or so who wade or fish from docks catch the same fish as their boat-based brethren but don't have to pay for that privilege.

Repealing the shoreline license exemption would create parity among anglers and raise more than $5-million for resource management. A stakeholder survey by FWC staff showed that more than 76 percent of Floridians support this option.

The FWC staff also determined that more money can come from existing programs if properly marketed. Florida's specialty tags have helped fund conservation research for more than a decade. The manatee tag, once the state's top-seller, has dropped to No. 5. Last year, the panther tag was the hottest conservation tag. A largemouth bass tag also ranked among the top 25.

State officials hope that a re-designed manatee tag will put it back on top. A simple way to increase sales would be to take 10 percent of the revenues from the manatee, panther and bass tags and put it toward marketing. A $15,000 investment, according to the FWC, would generate an extra $500,000 in revenue. But for this to happen, the plan must be approved by the Legislature.

Anglers and hunters aren't the only people who benefit from the FWC programs. Hikers, birdwatchers, canoeists and kayakers enjoy the great outdoors. State officials estimate that 3.2-million people participate in wildlife viewing in Florida each year. A large number come from out of state, which makes Florida the No. 1 "wildlife viewing" destination in the United States.

If even a small percentage of the people who enjoy our wildlife support the agency tasked with protecting it by purchasing a $25 "conservation" tag, the state could raise millions for resource management.

One final option is a voluntary "heritage" license. Right now, seniors are exempt from Florida's fishing and hunting license laws. Seniors who continue to enjoy our natural resources or those who hope to preserve it for their grandchildren, can do their share to help.

All of these proposals have merit. If we all do a little, we can accomplish a lot.