Evergreen State in the Red | WDFW Budget & Policy
ConservationNWAdmin / Nov 01, 2018 / Legislation, Restoring Wildlife, WDFW
Mitch Friedman, our Executive Director, shares insights from serving on the Budget and Policy Advisory Group for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
MAY 2019 UPDATE: A setback from Olympia for wildlife and ecosystems
BY MITCH FRIEDMAN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
Washington has not been adequately funding its Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) enough for it to accomplish its excellent mission: To preserve, protect and perpetuate fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities. This impacts me, you and many in our state.
Over the last decade, state appropriations to natural resources have declined due to the 2008 recession, obligations to education and other factors. Meanwhile, another key revenue source, sales of hunting and fishing licenses and associated federal grants from excise taxes on hunting, angling and boating gear and supplies, have also declined due to national trends. And as revenue has declined, expenses have naturally risen, leaving a widening gap.
You can take action for full WDFW funding through our form on this page!
When the legislature considered the department’s needs in 2017, it did so with a suspicious eye. Instead of funding the gap, the legislature instead directed WDFW to go through an outside audit, undertake some fancy budget analysis and form a Budget and Policy Advisory Group (BPAG) comprised of about 20 citizens, including myself, representing diverse stakeholder groups. I was eager to accept that invitation, having heard complaints about WDFW mismanagement and other concerns over the years.
In addition to Conservation Northwest’s mission for healthy, connected habitat and restored biodiversity, I brought to the BPAG my personal interests as both a consumptive and non-consumptive user of our wildlife heritage. Over the last couple years I’ve hunted for deer and elk, fished for salmon, trout, squid and crab, dug for shellfish, and of course, enjoyed the birds, beasts and beauty of our great state and its public lands.
Through the BPAG’s six all-day meetings, supplemented by phone calls, we’ve learned a lot. The first and most important lesson was how motivated we all were to see the department succeed. The meetings were very collegial and productive, notwithstanding a history of infighting over policy goals and funding among various stakeholder groups. We all realized that while we might compete with one another, we all supported the department’s mission, and all of our respective interests are tied to the department’s success.
While we or our colleagues may gripe about department policies or decisions—whether they relate to salmon production or allocation, cougar hunting, wolf conservation or a multitude of other fish and wildlife topics—none of our interests are served if the department itself is failing, or failing to advance its mission.
The next education came when the results of the department’s outside audit came back, completed by a reputable firm called Matrix. In short, it found WDFW compares well against similar agencies, and no substantial sources of inefficiency or ineptitude exist. It’s a relatively normal, functional department with a difficult and complex mandate! Even more informative were the budget analyses the department staff provided us: Less than four percent of WDFW’s expenses were related to conserving diverse wildlife (as opposed to game fish and wildlife) and non-consumptive recreation. You can see a good presentation of the budget picture here (page 21).
READ MORE ABOUT WDFW BUDGET ISSUES IN THIS OCTOBER 24 OUTDOORS COLUMN IN THE ELLENSBURG DAILY RECORD. Or Take action here.
I frequently hear some sportsmen gripe that their license fees are subsidizing things like wolf conservation or hiking trails, but that’s simply not true! While the greatest share of the department’s budget goes to producing hatchery fish, of the roughly $50 million per year the department receives from the state’s general fund (taxpayer money) and license plate sales, less than $15 million goes to non-game critter conservation and recovery and passive (or non-consumptive) recreation.
We also learned that hunters, anglers and other recreationists who enjoy using the resources the department stewards generate enough economic activity, mostly through sales tax, to send over $170 million per year to Olympia—a return of 350 percent on the legislature’s investment in the department.
The net effect of our education was a slightly-surly if motivated group of BPAG members. While the legislature expected us to help prioritize budget cuts to fit WDFW into smaller, more easily-funded shoes, we decided instead to demand adequate funding for an efficient agency and the essential functions it provides for the state, the public and our unique Washington quality of life.
Most BPAG members signed onto a letter we sent to the Fish and Wildlife Commission that makes our case for more funding, suggesting 25 percent of the gap be filled by increased license fees, and the rest from the state’s general fund. I’m working with other BPAG members to make the case directly to legislators, and when the time’s right during the upcoming legislative session, we will ask for your help in that process.
Many of us on the BPAG hope to help develop a proposal for a new source of sustainable revenue that will further support the conservation and recreation needs of the department. The challenge is Washington’s tax code is already so regressive—with most revenue coming from sales taxes that disproportionately hit lower-income people—that adding a special tax anywhere would add to the inequity. We are, however, pursuing an idea for a voluntary stamp or sticker that would be collaboratively marketed by outdoor retailers and others, with the revenue restricted to conservation purposes.
We are also actively supporting federal legislation, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which would allocate a portion of federal fossil fuel royalties to state and tribal fish and wildlife grants. This bipartisan bill is co-sponsored by Representatives Suzan DelBene and Dave Reichert of Washington’s 1st and 8th Districts, respectively, along with 100 of their colleagues. If passed, it would generate more than $26 million per year for Washington’s diverse wildlife.
Washington is a unique state, ranging from marine to alpine to desert environments, with varied wildlife, countless salmon streams and complicated treaty obligations. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is expected to steward all of these diverse resources in the face of the habitat impacts from a booming population and economy, widespread development, climate change, poachers and other challenges.
Whether one is a wildlife watcher or a hunter, a hiker or an angler, or all of the above, the natural heritage the agency works so hard to sustain is vital to who we are as Washingtonians. We must give it the resources that enable it to succeed, perpetually.