by Nicole Rivard

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is asking residents to share their ideas about future financing for conservation and outdoor recreation as the number of hunters and fishers in the state plummet. 

“More Minnesotans are enjoying outdoor resources than ever before,” said DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen, in an outreach video to residents. “But they are using them differently than in the past. And that use isn’t just for recreation, it’s also for educational experiences and mental health. So, we need funding that is holistic, adaptable and responsive to evolving needs and the challenges we face, including the climate crisis.” 

That is music to Friends of Animals’ ears.  

It’s heartening to see Minnesota bringing bikers who use trails; hikers who want to experience nature and perhaps see eagles soaring above them; and birders who seek out open spaces to the table when it comes to funding conservation. It’s long overdue. 

“FoA has always railed against the model that the funding of wildlife and critical habitat conservation and management was in the hands of hunters slaughtering deer, bears, coyotes, wolves, and other animals,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. “But that’s the model President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law with the Wildlife Restoration Act, also known as the Pittman–Robertson Act of 1937.” 

The way the Act works is when a firearm or box of ammo, bow or arrow, is sold by the manufacturer to the retailer or distributor, an excise tax is levied. The current rate is 11 percent on long guns and ammo, bows, and arrows, and a 10 percent tax on handguns. Manufacturers send that money to the federal government, while the seller adds the tax into the price consumers pay at the sporting goods store.  

The federal government then distributes those millions based on the land area of the state and territories (50 percent) and the number of paid hunting license holders (50 percent). None receives more than five percent of the total; each is guaranteed at least one-half of one percent. 

Minnesota plans to have identified actionable solutions by the second half of 2022, according to Vanessa Perry, Future Funding Project manager for Minnesota DNC. Minnesotans have offered ideas on how to use the existing fee structure to increase revenue, such as establishing a physical or online recreation card or pass that is a base cost to purchase with easy a la carte add-ons for additional uses. They’ve also suggested charging fees for currently free uses such as boat landings.  

Other residents think expanding tax-based solutions is the way to go. Those suggestions include dedicating a percent of fuel sales (the percent likely being used on boats and outdoor recreation vehicles) to the DNR budget; establishing a carbon tax with funds dedicated to conservation; and dedicating sales tax on all outdoor recreation equipment to conservation and outdoor recreation causes or working with businesses for an optional point-of-sale add-on for conservation. 

Texas and Georgia lead by example 

Perry said Minnesota has been considering Texas’ state constitutional amendment that passed in 2019 that allows revenue from the sporting good sales tax to solely be used by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Historical Commission on public parks and historic sites. The amendment ensures there will be funding to protect Texas’ water quality, natural areas, beaches and wildlife so that future generations can enjoy them. It also creates a consistent stream of revenue for the maintenance and long-term planning of state parks and historic sites.  

The 2019 amendment fixed a decades-long mistake. In 1993 the sporting good sales tax was passed with the promise of creating a revenue stream for Texas parks but over time most of the revenue was diverted into the general revenue fund. 

Like Texas, Georgia saw the writing on the wall in terms of a hunting industry that’s going extinct and passed the Outdoor Stewardship Act in November of 2018.  

The Act authorizes up to 80 percent of all moneys received by the state from the sales and use tax collected by outdoor recreation equipment establishments to fund stewardship projects for state parks, state lands and wildlife management areas; to support local parks and trails; and to protect critical conservation land. 

The approved appropriations for Georgia’s fiscal year 2022 are $20,700,000.  

“The Outdoor Stewardship Act’s passage is a testament to the strength of the partnership between our elected officials, state agencies and NGOs in Georgia, and their recognition of the importance of outdoor recreation,” said Soheila Naji, Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Program coordinator. 

Unfortunately, some of the projects funded by the Outdoor Stewardship Act do provide hunting opportunities, however there is a greater emphasis on the protection of wildlife and wildlife habitat than in the past because more wildlife watchers have been brought to the funding table. 

Among the projects that have been funded in Georgia is the creation of two miles of nature trails in the South Fork Conservancy in the heart of Atlanta, connecting four regional trail networks and 25 acres of green space. This project will enable hundreds of thousands of residents within a 10-minute walk of the trail to enjoy new outdoor recreational opportunities in some of the most park-deficient neighborhoods of Atlanta. 

There are also state land acquisition projects including Ceylon, which consists of some 15,600 acres. The area is home to at least 10 federally listed, candidate and petitioned species, and 24 state-protected, rare, or species of concern, including four viable gopher tortoise populations, wood stork, Florida manatee, bald eagle, painted bunting and the hooded pitcher plant. With restoration, Ceylon will also provide future habitat for red-cockaded woodpeckers. A network of wetland ponds across the property also provides breeding habitat for imperiled amphibian species.  

Funds have also been funneled into state stewardship projects like The Sandhills Wildlife Management Area. The project restored approximately 125 acres of longleaf pine habitat, which benefits populations of gopher tortoise, loggerhead shrike, Bachman’s sparrow, coal skink, southern hognose snake, and other species of conservation concern. 

“Georgia offers some of the most beautiful, diverse ecosystems in the country,” said Naji. “Our residents recognized the importance of outdoor recreation in their own lives, the economic impact it has in our state and the need to be responsible stewards of those resources.”