Thank you, Governor Paterson, for accomplishing a feat New York hasn’t seen happen in several decades – that being, polarizing the sportsmen and women of the state into a singular powerful political force.
Perhaps the real credit might go to the NYS Deputy Secretary for the Environment, Ms. Judith Enck, who reputedly was one of the primary advisors who prodded the governor into making what may have been one of the biggest political decision blunders since the NYSDEC was born from the NYS Conservation Department back in 1971. From a poor decision standpoint, it nearly rivals the governor’s predecessor’s ill-fated “escort adventure.”
Paterson’s executive decision to close down the last remaining public pheasant rearing facility near Ithaca, kill and donate the processed brooder birds to food banks, then sell the facility (reportedly to Cornell University) ignited a firestorm that had been building up for years, since all this was being done without so much as an invited word from the state’s sportsmen whose dollars funded the facility and program, and whose dollars would also pay for the processing and shipping of the birds to food banks. It’s notable too that since 2000, through the Venison Donation Coalition, Inc. program, New York hunters have voluntarily coordinated the collection and distribution of nearly 500,000 pounds of ground venison to food banks in the state.
For those who don’t follow the DEC’s income and budget makeup, all revenue generated by sporting licenses and fees is required by law to be placed in a special dedicated fund, in New York’s case it’s the Conservation Fund. Also joining these revenues are the state’s share of special state and federal excise taxes, over and above sales taxes, that are paid by sportsmen on hunting and fishing gear. Now the NYS Conservation Fund Advisory Board (CFAB) – the state’s watch dog group for the fund – wants a full and complete accounting of how these revenues have been used. By law, they’re only supposed to be utilized for fish, wildlife and related habitat and conservation programs. The majority of non-conservation environmental and other programs fall under the big umbrella of the State’s General Fund.
For many years since the NYSDEC came into being, sportsmen were especially worried that the Conservation Fund revenue was not being used properly and that “creative” budget practices were being used to funnel funds into other projects and programs that had little or no connection to the purposes required by law. From a cost standpoint, if one removes fish rearing and stocking from the DEC’s fish and wildlife programs, there are no other ones that require annual, ongoing replenishing support, other than the pheasant project. Other game species such as deer, bear, wild turkey, waterfowl and other small game species are self-proliferating and are managed by limits and seasons.
Since hunting and fishing generates billions of dollars annually in New York State, exactly where was the revenue they created going? Obviously it was easy for Albany to quote the total income from sporting licenses and fees, but what about all the revenue from related taxes hunting and fishing generated? According to DEC, nearly 700,000 New Yorkers and over 50,000 nonresidents hunt here annually, and over a million go fishing each year. From an economic standpoint, hunting generates $1B a year, while statewide fishing creates $1.3B annually, Oswego County alone enjoys $3.5M in directly generated fishing revenue annually. Combined, hunting and fishing in New York brought in $250M in state and local taxes. Yet, the Conservation Fund is currently running about $24M in the red. How could that be? What exactly are the state’s sportsmen and women getting for the billions of dollars they spend on their activities each year?
Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of governmental slush funds within a general fund — which is what some dedicated funds may become -- since they may entice officials to be “creative” in misusing them for pet purposes that the funds were never intended to support. When the title “environmental” is used in conjunction with revenue expenditures there’s precious few projects that would fall outside that catch-all blanket. Fish, wildlife, habitat and related conservation could all obviously be construed to fall into that big net, given the right wording and budget manipulation, which many of us suspect is what has happened and been happening with dedicated Conservation Fund revenue. Up until the pheasant program debacle, it appeared the majority of licensed sportsmen literally adopted the “sheeple attitude” and allowed DEC within a general fund use of the money they spent annually on their outdoor activities.
The initial pheasant program decision by the governor literally screamed "Danger Ahead" for all NY sportsmen, conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts, and signaled that fish, wildlife, conservation and habitat were being stomped even deeper into the DEC priority basement by the massive weight of the state's huge environmental priority-heavy boot. Had the pheasant program decision not been reversed, you can bet your children and grandkids' futures that it would have had a steady negative ripple effect throughout all the other fish, wildlife and habitat programs and priorities.
Although this is an initial victory for New York's millions of sportsmen/women and wildlife enthusiasts, it appears there will be more challenges ahead for all of us, including gun and bow hunters, bass, walleye and trout/salmon anglers and all sportsmen in general as apparently Judith Enck, Deputy Secretary for the Environment, seems dedicated to drastically cutting fish, wildlife and habitat programs within the DEC and funneling more of that money into environmental programs and projects. Questions still remain about how and where revenue in the Conservation Fund has been spent.
Let’s hope this recent banding together of all sportsmen and women of the state, in addition to the various clubs, associations and lobbying groups that represent them, will be an ongoing phenomenon … one that demands accountability from the DEC and State and will settle for nothing less. We’ve turned the other check and looked the other way far too long.