Editorial: Better ways to pay for Fish and Game

  • In this April 15, 2014, file photo, New Hampshire Fish and Game search for a missing person in the Smith River in Bristol. AP

Published: 12/2/2018 12:05:03 AM

Asking hunters and anglers to cover the cost of funding the Department of Fish and Game is a bit like telling motor vehicle owners that only red and blue cars must be registered. Everyone uses the roads and everyone enjoys New Hampshire’s great outdoors, if only as scenery that attracts tourists and their dollars.

Everyone, not just those who purchase a hunting or fishing license, should pitch in to fund Fish and Game.

For the third time in four years, a commission appointed by the Legislature has issued recommendations on how to support the state’s fiscally strapped Fish and Game Department. Funding for the agency remains stuck in the muzzleloader era despite repeated efforts to ram through changes.

This time around, with Democrats in control of the House and Senate, a few of the better recommendations should be enacted.

Fish and Game is the first agency of its kind to be established in the United States. It was formed shortly after the end of the Civil War, when there was a hunter or angler in almost every household. It made perfect sense a century ago to fund the agency with license fees, but they’ve fallen short for decades.

Fish and Game’s budget, now $32 million, is chronically in shortfall. The century-old Wildlife Management Institute estimates that only about 4 percent of Americans hold a hunting license and 14 percent buy a fishing license. New Hampshire Fish and Game once sold 85,000 hunting licenses, $32 each at today’s price, but last year sold just 55,000. Meanwhile, what the public expects of Fish and Game has grown substantially.

The agency’s conservation officers, otherwise known as game wardens, are charged with rescuing lost hikers and boaters. About half the rescues occur in the White Mountains and few of them involve people hunting or fishing. Fish and Game oversees snowmobiling and trail riding on dirt bikes and ATVs. It owns 54,000 acres and leases another 19,000. It maintains 143 public boat ramps, operates fish ladders, six trout hatcheries and programs to restore non-game species, yet it gets no money from bird watchers, hikers and nature lovers who don’t hunt or fish.

The commission wants to broaden the agency’s financial base. The best way to do that is to give up on the fiction that, in this day and age, an agency like Fish and Game can support itself by imposing user fees. The worst of the recommendations call for charging the users of non-motorized watercraft – kayaks, canoes, paddleboards and the like – a $10 annual fee to use the state’s waters. The fee would barely cover the cost of printing decals and overseeing and enforcing the program, so it would net little revenue. It would inconvenience and outrage countless owners of multiple canoes and kayaks, and send a terrible Big Brother message to the visitors who contribute dearly to the state’s economy.

Other recommendations do have merit.

It makes sense, for example, to let Fish and Game, rather than the state’s court system, conduct hearings and collect and retain the fines from off-highway recreational vehicle violations. That would bring in revenue and relieve a burden on the judicial system.

Chief among the commission’s recommendations, however, is the proposal to dedicate a small portion of the state Rooms and Meals tax to the agency. That one’s a no-brainer. Everyone benefits from Fish and Game’s care for the state’s outdoors. Everyone should pay.

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