Commentary: Conservation pays

H. Dale Hall

Former head of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Bush administration takes House Republicans to task for proposed budget cutting measures

*This op-ed piece originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

By H. Dale Hall

The Congress and Administration began in earnest their jousting over the budget last week when the president submitted his fiscal year 2012 proposal and the House of Representatives debated HR1, the bill to fund the remainder of fiscal year 2011.  The debates surrounding these two actions will likely define the approach that will be used to reduce the massive budget deficit that all agree is crippling America’s economic recovery.  At Ducks Unlimited, we strongly urge budget cutting efforts that actually work to reduce the deficit.  We do, however, believe that won’t happen through political rhetoric, but rather through legitimate analysis of the costs and benefits of all programs.

I am extremely disappointed with the approach taken in HR1 to eliminate conservation programs, such as the North American Wetland Conservation Act (NAWCA) grants, that have proven successful at every level of analysis, including the amount of money returned to the federal treasury through taxes each year.  For every federal dollar invested through this program, $3-$4 dollars of non-federal monies are secured as matching funds.  This program alone has protected and conserved more than 25 million acres of essential habitat for migratory birds and also serves hundreds of non-game species. 

In addition, every year hunters, shooters, anglers and boaters pay special federal taxes that are returned to the federal treasury for specific conservation use.  That amounts to about $1 billion each year going directly to the state fish and wildlife agencies to manage and conserve fish and wildlife in each of the states.  Further, nearly $2 billion each year is secured through the sale of licenses to hunt and fish.  Simply stated, the state fish and wildlife agencies could not exist without these two sources of funding, both voluntarily paid from the private sector.

Hunting and fishing is about an $80 billion per year industry.  Billions of dollars per year – a net gain for the federal treasury – are returned through direct taxes paid by those who work in that industry:  manufacturers, guides, outfitters, the hospitality sector, retail, and others who support getting hunters and anglers into the field.  The father of modern conservation, Aldo Leopold wrote about the importance of the citizen conservationist nearly a century ago.  Since that time, the cost of conservation has been freely carried on the shoulders of hunters and anglers.   But the federal government needs to do its part.

The government’s contribution to conservation each year is less than $5 billion.  Yes, a fair amount more is appropriated to carry out laws and regulations to keep things from getting worse, but in the effort to improve and advance conservation, the federal government is not the leader in the funding of those efforts.  The states and private conservationists are the leaders.  For what federal taxpayers receive in return for their investment, and the small amount the government provides in partnership, these programs should be upheld.

Finding ways to reduce the massive federal deficit simply must be done.  But in doing so, let’s make sure to support those federal investments that pay for themselves several times over and be critical of those that are truly wasteful.  Conservation has always, and continues to, pay for itself.  Congress and the Administration should approach the budget challenge with facts and analyses, not a meat cleaver.

H. Dale Hall is the Chief Executive Officer of Ducks Unlimited, Inc., and the former Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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