To aid a state agency destined to be left badly strapped for cash because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the leader of the state’s largest outdoor organization is suggesting Alaska follow the lead of Colorado and require anyone using recreational access sites or facilities funded by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game be required to buy a hunting or fishing license.
License sales are vital to the state agency’s budget, and they are plummeting because of the 2020, pandemic-driven death of tourism in the north. For years, revenues from these non-resident licenses have, directly and indirectly, provided the bulk of the money the state needs to fund management of sport fisheries and wildlife management.
With the anglers from the Lower 48 barely showing this year, Dave Rutz, the director of the Sport Fish, said the division is looking at a cash shortfall of $5 million to $10 million or more. He said the financial losses are coming on two fronts.
Most of the non-resident anglers who last year bought more than $19 million in licenses and tags are missing from the 49th state this year, Rutz said, and national sales of fishing tackle and motorboat fuel on which the federal government imposes excise taxes to collect funds for state conservation programs are falling because of the national recession.
The Division of Wildlife Conservation is in a similar situation. It also needs revenue from license sales to support programs and match federal taxes that contribute more than $30 million per year to the division’s budget.
The funding problem is not unique to Alaska, said Rod Arno, the executive director of the Alaska Outdoor Council. Colorado, he said, has already moved to try to fill part of its budget hole by requiring everyone who uses recreation sites funded by fishing or hunting dollars buy a license.
No free ride
Starting July 1, all users of Colorado boat launches and other sites that fall under the control of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission will need in their possession a hunting or fishing license, The Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction reported this week.
“All adults using the areas will be required to purchase a proper and valid hunting or fishing license in order to access these areas….For example, if a family of four takes a boat out for a day on the river, every person on the boat 18 years or older will need a license,” reporter Alex Zorn wrote.
Colorado is reported to have more than 350 state wildlife areas and nearly 240 state trust lands which will fall under the new license requirement. It is unclear how many areas a similar rule could cover in Alaska, but Arno is convinced it could be applied to “every legislatively designated area that mentions hunting” as well as to fishing and hunting access sites on which the state annually spends conservation funds.
About $3 million per year in funding tied to the federal Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration and Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration funds are spent in Alaska.
One such improvement is a bridge across Penguin Creek in the half-million-acre Chugach State Park just east of the state’s largest city.
“This project was completed in July 2019,” according to the agency. “The derelict bridge was replaced with a 60-foot bridge that is designed to accommodate ATV traffic. The new bridge restores an essential stream crossing over Penguin Creek, preventing stream bank erosion and resource damage to an important anadromous salmon stream.”
The bridge appears to be used far more by hikers, cyclists and snowmachine riders than by hunters. But it was funded with money from the big pool of Pittman-Robertson Funds.
Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson funds annually generate more than $1 billion in taxes on fishing tackle, firearms, boats, marine fuel and more. The money is divided among the states based on a formula that takes into account their size and the number of hunters and anglers.
Texas and Alaska are annually the biggest beneficiaries. Texas was awarded more than $54 million and Alaska more than $51 million in fiscal year 2018, according to the Department of the Interior. The next closest state was California which was granted less than $43 million.
The funding is expected to drop this year, and the Alaska Sport Fish Division is in a particularly difficult spot because the Dingell-Johnson fund requires the state provide a dollar to match every three dollars in federal funds.
To collect the $17 million to $18 million the state usually gets from the fund, the state needs to generate about $6 million in license fees. Residents anglers bought less than $3.5 million in licenses and king salmon stamps last year.
State officials aren’t sure they’ll get the money to meet matching requirements, and even if they do, the loss of license fees from nonresidents will hit hard at the division’s budget.
An 80 percent reduction in non-resident license fees – which is possible – would appear to still provide the state enough to meet the federal match, but the Sport Fish Division would be left with a greater than $15 million budget shortfall.
A requirement everyone using river, lake and wildland access sites fund by anglers and hunters wouldn’t begin to close that a budget gap the big, but the budgetary situation is so bad that any additional dollars would help, Arno said.