May 1, 2013

GEORGE SMITH: 59-year search continues for fish and wildlife funding

George Smith

We've been on this trail since 1954.

In the December 1954 Sportsmen's Guide, Commissioner Roland Cobb outlined the desperate financial situation of his Department of Fisheries and Game. He reported that his agency "must curtail our services ... go backward instead of forward in our planned program of fish and game management, or else find new sources of revenue to pick up the slack."

Fifty-nine years later, we're still seeking those new revenue sources.

Last week, groups representing sportsmen and environmentalists were back on this trail, testifying before the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee in favor of L.D. 219, a proposal of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine to direct a portion of revenues generated from energy infrastructure corridors on public lands to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife with an annual cap of $5 million.

In my testimony, I told the committee that there is something else of interest in Cobb's report. He wrote, "In the final analysis, the decision is up to the stockholders -- the sportsmen of the state. It's their fish and game -- and their department. They can best make the decision."

Today, all the people of Maine are stockholders in this important agency, renamed the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department many years ago. The name change recognized that all Mainers value and benefit from this department's work. But sportsmen are still paying all the bills. The public stockholders have invested nothing.

Given the importance of our wildlife resources to all the people of Maine, and to our tourism and outdoor recreation economy, does it make sense to base the research, management, protection and enhancement of those resources only on the sale of licenses and permits to hunt and fish?

In 1992, Maine voters endorsed a constitutional amendment that placed this department in our Constitution and protected its revenue -- essentially stopping the Legislature and governor from stealing its money. I managed that referendum campaign. Almost a half-million voters (74 percent) endorsed the amendment, a stunning statement of support for this agency.

Alas, the vote fell on deaf ears in Augusta, where for the last 21 years we've been struggling to gain the public's dollars to match the public's support for this agency and its mission.

From time to time, the department has scooped up crumbs that fell off the appropriations table. Last year, it got $350,000 of General Fund tax dollars to pay for the search and rescue of nonsportsmen. The agency, however, spent $500,000 on those searches -- including $100,000 in the so-far fruitless search for Ayla Reynolds, the missing Waterville toddler.

Here's the agency's mission statement: "The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is established to preserve, protect and enhance the inland fisheries and wildlife resources of the state; to encourage the wise use of these resources; to ensure coordinated planning for the future use and preservation of these resources; and to provide for effective management of these resources."

Does this sound like something that only the sportsmen and women of this state should support and pay for? Of course not!

And let me tell you, this is an agency in decline. The loss of Maine's deer herd destroyed our biggest outdoor industry, and nobody in Augusta even noticed. Our nonresident deer hunters are gone and they are not coming back. Those outfitters and guides who could, have left the state.

You may think the fisheries in our state are highly regarded. During the last 14 years, the 3 million acres of North Maine Woods has seen a 50 percent decline in brook trout anglers.

Forbes magazine recently published an article on the 10 best fishing destination states. We're not on the list.

We used to make every list of the best places to hunt and fish. Not any more.

Less than 25 percent of Maine's lakes and ponds have sufficient public boating access, we have no legal rights of access to our brooks, streams and rivers, and the agency's water access program gets no money -- nothing -- in the proposed new budget?

While we all recognize the critical importance of the department's landowner relations program -- much of our outdoor recreation from hunting to birding is enjoyed on private land -- the department had to give up a substantial portion of a federal grant for this program last year because it couldn't come up with the required matching funds.

If we want the Fish and Wildlife Department to serve all the people, then all the people should pay. Sportsmen recognized this 59 years ago. Still waiting. Still hoping.

 

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon, ME 04352, or george smithmaine@gmail.com. Read more of Smith's writings at www.georgesmith maine.com.

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