Who pays for conservation in Alabama? You won’t believe the answer.

Public State Lake fishing Who pays for conservation in Alabama? You won’t believe the answer.
Alabama State Lake opening in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Eighty plus years ago, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, previously called Game and Fish Division, began a program to bring back deer and wild turkey from the brink of extinction. Now, deer and turkey are abundant.

The agency established a statewide network of Wildlife Management Areas and State Lakes. Today, every Alabama hunter and angler has public access to land or a lake nearby to hunt and fish.

Before the 1950s, fishing in Alabama occurred primarily along streams and a few private ponds. Within a generation, through extensive fisheries research on reservoirs, ponds and re-stocking programs, the state helped rural and impoverished communities provide a source of protein for their families. Eventually, many of the lakes became world class sport fishing destinations.

And from the 1980s to the early 2000s wildlife and fisheries leaders in Alabama re-introduced the Bald Eagle and established the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center – the largest non-game recovery program of its kind in the United States.

Our national symbol - Bald Eagle - Photo by George Lee
Our national symbol – Bald Eagle – Photo by George Lee

All these significant accomplishments were done by the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division without ever receiving “one dime” of general fund appropriation from the Alabama Legislature.

So, how do they keep the lights on? How are they able to do their job?

Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries exist because hunters and anglers taxed themselves to pay for the state’s conservation programs.

Beginning in the early 20th century and continuing ‘til today, hunters and anglers, locally and nationally have funded nearly all of Alabama’s conservation programs. They have “paid the bills” through state hunting and fishing license fees and taxes on their firearms, ammunition, bows, fishing tackle and boat fuel.

A New Deal for conservation – hunters take the first step

Many natural resource historians call the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937 the most important conservation law in our nation’s history. Established at the same time many of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal era legislation and policies were enacted, Pittman-Robertson set into a motion a way to pay for the protection of wildlife on both a state and federal level.

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Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now.

Corky Pugh, former head of Alabama’s Wildlife and Fisheries and Director of the Hunting Heritage Foundation, describes how the law works.

“The leaders in the wildlife community nationally put their heads together and developed a mechanism to pay for managing and protecting wildlife. The upshot of it all was the Pittman-Robertson (PR) Act, which was passed in the 1930s. It created a funding mechanism based on federal excise taxes paid on hunting arms and ammunition. The monies collected from those taxes were then turned around and allocated to all fifty states based on the landmass of the state, combined with the number of licensed hunters. Those PR funds provided a 3 to 1 match to the states. For every hunting license dollar states collected they received $3 dollars from the federal government.”

According to Pugh, from the beginning, monies from the PR Act went directly to resource management, not law enforcement or promotion. Provisions in the law also ensure that funds cannot be raided by state legislatures who may want to use the funds for other projects or balanced budgets.

The power of the 3 to 1 match

Using Pittman-Robertson as a model, in 1950 the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act was passed. This time, anglers asked Congress to redirect an excise tax on rods, reels and fishing lures that were used to fund US efforts during World War II. Once again, the use of license fees, in this case fishing licenses, incentivized programs nationwide with the same 3 to 1 match Pittman-Robertson had been using for the previous 13 years.

In Alabama, in 2018, Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson allocated $25.5 million for the state. Both laws have changed the Alabama ecological landscape.

As we reported in our first installment, deer and turkey recovered in Alabama after near extinction in the 1920s and 1930s. Along with re-introducing deer and turkey throughout the state, Pittman-Robertson funds have been used to establish a network of Wildlife Management Areas (WMA). Today totaling 721,521 acres Alabama’s WMAs provide public access to well managed hunting lands. If not for the WMAs, many Alabama hunters would have nowhere else to go, especially if they can’t afford a private hunting club or own land. Without public access, the number of hunters would decline, which means less licenses sold and subsequently less money coming from Pittman-Robertson.

Fishing in Alabama was ‘lousy’
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Photo from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Fishing has also come a long way in Alabama over the past seven to eight decades thanks to the Dingell-Johnson Act. Home to B.A.S.S. (Bass Anglers Sportsman Society), it is hard to imagine fishing here being ‘lousy’. But, that was the exact word longtime Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Assistant Director, Fred Harders, used to describe the conditions anglers faced before State Lakes and reservoirs were constructed and managed.

“Fishing was poor (before the 1940s). There were no state lakes, no reservoirs. There were streams and a maybe a few ponds that people built,” stated Harders. “But they were not managed. You can imagine the fishing was lousy. When Homer Swingle (the father of freshwater fisheries in Alabama) got his research completed, we constructed 21 state lakes in 19 counties They were built in areas where people didn’t have fishing and before the reservoirs were built. On opening days of the State Lakes these small communities were swamped with 10,000 cane poles.”

Harders added, “Now, we have world class fishing.”

Walker County Lake Billy Pope 22 Who pays for conservation in Alabama? You won’t believe the answer.
Angler at a Walker County State Lake. Photo courtesy of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Wildlife grants depend on hunting and fishing licenses

Hunters’ and anglers’ license fees support more than deer, turkey and largemouth bass. Income generated by hunting and fishing licenses are regularly used to match state wildlife grants that support non-game programs such as the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center, which studies ways to recover freshwater mussel and snail populations.

“I wish the general public were as aware as people who hunt and fish that maintaining general ecosystem health is vital to supporting the quality of life we enjoy here in Alabama,” stated Randy Haddock, Field Director at the Cahaba River Society.

Since the early 2000s the Department of Conservation has had a license geared toward people who care about non-game called the Wildlife Heritage License. It too can be matched by Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson funds.

Will the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation last?

Since the time of Theodore Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold conservationists have based protection of our wildlife on the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. The model has two basic principles. First, our fish and wildlife belong to all North American citizens. Second, wildlife is to be managed in such a way that their populations will be sustained forever.

Nick Nichols, Chief of Fisheries from the state of Alabama summed it up best:

“It goes back to the philosophy we have always understood about the North American Model for Wildlife Conservation. Hunters and anglers don’t mind some of their resources being used to protect species other than the game animals and the sports fishes. Strategically, they understand taking care of those ecosystems and habitats are good for deer, turkey, largemouth bass and crappie. Sport fishing and game animals don’t stand alone. They are dependent on these habitats and ecological systems they live in. Hunters and anglers are not only contributing to their target species but the health of the wildlife ecosystems.”

Our system that funds conservation is based on licenses and excise taxes from bullets to fishing lures. What happens if hunting and fishing licenses decline? How should we broaden the funding base?

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Photo from the Outdoor Alabama Facebook page of Gone Fishin’ Not Just Wishin’ event at Oak Mountain State Park

According to a USFWS report published in August 2017, The 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, from 2011 to 2016:

  • The number of hunters fell by 2.2 million participants
  • Hunting-related spending decreased by 29 percent.
  • Hunting equipment purchases slipped by 18 percent.

In our next installment we will examine living in a world that values computer screens over fishing poles. What are the solutions to a looming conservation funding crisis?

Pat Byington
Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.

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