A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Our Wildlife Resources: It's the Public's Turn

Eastern wild turkeys were
restored to NH with federal aid
You may have heard about the financial woes of the N.H. Fish and Game Department, the agency that manages our public wildlife resources. The key word being “public.”

It’s the state agency that manages New Hampshire’s wildlife, from white-tailed deer, wild turkey and moose to salamanders, little brown bats and bald eagles. All of the state’s wildlife, and all of it is a public resource, whether the object of a bullet, a hook or pair of binoculars.

It’s the agency that connects us -- the public -- to the great outdoors. It coordinates volunteer hunter education instructors who keep hunting a remarkably safe activity. It oversees backcountry search and rescues. It is the champion for connecting the outdoors with children, our next generation of conservationists. All great things for the public good.

But for years, the agency has been in financial trouble. And the situation has been getting worse. Now, if the legislature doesn’t step in and help, the fund that fuels the department’s operation will be depleted within three years. That kind of gloomy uncertainty is no way to run an agency with a $28 million annual budget and 184 dedicated employees.

What does the agency want to help fix this problem? For the short-term, $550,000 for the FY 2014 budget and $745,000 from the state’s general funds, including $200,000 a year for search and rescue operations. For the long-term, Fish and Game wants the state to establish a stable funding source to supplement its existing mix of funds from federal aid and other sources.

This is all reasonable, responsible and timely, and here’s why.

But first, a quick quiz: How much of the department’s budget currently comes from the state’s general fund (as in, public tax dollars)?
A) 100 percent
B) 75 percent
C) 25 percent
D) .2 percent 

If you guessed .2 percent, you got it. Wow! Two-tenths of one percent? No way!

That’s right. For a $27.7 million budget, that’s only $50,000. And that goes specifically to the department’s Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program. Nothing else. Some money from boat registration fees helps create public access to our lakes and rivers. And some money from boat, snowmobile and off-highway recreational vehicles (OHRV) supports search and rescue operations (right, those users aren’t often the expensive, high-profile rescues). 

The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation 

Then where does Fish and Game get its funding? To answer that question, it’s worth stepping back a little bit, because it’s easy to take things for granted.

White-tailed deer, beaver, moose, wild turkey, passenger pigeons -- these are all species native to New Hampshire, once abundant and all suffered terrible declines in the 1800s, before hunting was regulated. The worst casualty was the passenger pigeon, which went extinct in 1914. Its needless end was one shameful legacy of unregulated market hunting.

By the late-1800s and early 1900s, conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot were raising the alarm about the devastation of our wildlife, our wilderness and our forests. One of the many breakthroughs to arise out of this great awakening was the North American model of wildlife conservation.

This great American success story is largely forgotten, especially by the policy-makers who really need to know it. Among our model’s tenets is that wildlife is a public resource, held in common ownership by the state for the benefit of all people. Another tenet is that our public wildlife is not a commodity that can be bought and sold on the private market, thus eliminating great pressure from market hunting. Other tenets: Managing wildlife is the domain of science, not politics; and states should manage wildlife populations, including game species, the harvests of which should be regulated with careful controls.

One of the shining moments in this now-rare moment of clarity in American governance was the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937. It’s a tax. A federal excise tax on the purchase of ammunition and firearms, which is pooled to fund states’ management of game species like white-tailed deer, black bear, moose and wild turkey. The act is responsible for the reintroduction of wild turkey to New Hampshire, the return and sound management of the other game species and the regulation of safe hunting. A similar act pools an excise tax on fishing equipment for managing fisheries.

About one-third of the department’s budget comes from federal aid. Another 29 percent or so comes from hunting and fishing license fees. The rest are from a bunch of small fees here and there, including OHRVs and boat registrations. 

It’s Not Right 

All of that funding (with the exception of .2 percent from the general fund for nongame species) comes from user fees, mostly hunters and anglers like me.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that’s not right. The public -- the state -- needs to pony up its share.

I’m not alone in this line of thinking. Fish and Game is urging support for measures before the N.H. Legislature that would provide short-term funding of $550,000 in FY 2014 and $745,000 in FY ‘15.

While the North American model of wildlife conservation has worked really well for generations, times are changing. Fewer people are hunting. The public has greater demands for the services of fish and wildlife agencies and a decreasing understanding and tolerance of wildlife, especially when critters encroach into their backyards that sit alongside good habitats. 

Listen Up, N.H. Legislature! 

And while New Hampshire is among a growing number of states seeking general fund dollars for wildlife, it ranks near the bottom of the list for states that provide public support.

All of this begs the supposition that wildlife is a public resource. Wildlife brings wide-ranging public benefits. Wildlife-associated recreation contributed $556 million to New Hampshire’s economy in 2011 according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Of this, hunters and anglers spent $275 million, while wildlife-watchers spent $281 million.

A closer look shows that in 2011, 56,000 people hunted in New Hampshire, 228,000 fished and a whopping 630,000 participated in wildlife-watching activities. When it comes to funding, something is clearly out of whack here.

Of course, those are all just numbers. We know that we all benefit from healthy, well-managed fish and wildlife in New Hampshire. We need not just the game species, but also the bats (which are now imperiled), the birds migrating across continents and all of the little critters that make the world work.

Wildlife is a public resource. It’s the public’s turn to pony up. 

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Fitting into Their Own Future

 New Club Gives Great Brook Students a Taste of Environmental Careers

Give a kid a taste of the future and pretty soon they’ll be hungry for the whole meal.

That’s the thinking behind a new program that the HarrisCenter for Conservation Education has kicked off at Great Brook School in Antrim.

The Environmental Leadership Club started this fall as a way to give willing middle schoolers a taste of careers that involve the environment or the great outdoors.

Students in Great Brook Middle School's
Environmental Leadership Club learn about
tree growth.
“It’s a chance for kids to give kids some background as to what’s available for careers,” says Jennifer Sutton, a Harris Center teacher/naturalist who’s leading the program. “It’s also a chance to get the kids outside after school and to be excited to be outside.”

The after-school program’s 10 students have so far had visits to or from:
  • Christine Destremps, a Harrisville artist who focuses on the need for clean water.
  • Eric Masterson, a Harris Center land specialist who takes care of the center’s lands and conservation easements.
  • Sunnyfield Farm in Peterborough where they learned about the farm’s operations and helped with chores.
  • Eastern Mountain Sports in Peterborough, a visit that was scheduled before the recent layoff announcement. They learned how the business environment is affected by many things, including warmer winters and the nature of changing commerce.
  • Robblee Tree Service, where they learned that tree work can also involve removing invasive species.
  • Me; I entertained questions about the broad range of work by The Nature Conservancy, from reviving shad populations to restoring rain forests. I also gave them tips on using the club’s game camera.
They will soon meet with Sgt. David Walsh, a conservation officer with the N.H. Fish and Game Department.

“It’s been great to see how the kids are starting to see the realm of opportunities that are out there,” Sutton says.

Eleven-year-old Connor Young says he loves being in the club. “I like how we go on field trips to learn about jobs in the environmental field,” he says. “And we do a lot of fun activities on days that we don’t go visit someone.”

Young, who’s in sixth grade, says he’ll be in the club next year and hopes more students join, too. “I’ve learned a lot in the club and I would probably go into the environmental field, maybe in agriculture.” 

Sutton says middle schoolers are old enough to keep focused on an after-school session and are starting to become curious about the career paths that may await them.

“We’re really delighted that, with the Harris Center, we’re able to offer this club to students,” says Jim Elder, Great Brook School’s principal. “The environmental niche is great for the future of our planet and it speaks to the students who have a strong interest in nature and the outdoors. And Ms. Sutton is a great teacher.”

After the series of visits, the club will create displays about environmental careers that visitors can see at the Harris Center. The club has also discussed holding a career fair.

The Harris Center hopes to continue the Environmental Leadership Club next year at Great Brook, and may also expand to South Meadow School in Peterborough. 

“This is a chance for kids to dig a little deeper into their souls,” Sutton says. “They’re thinking about themselves and how they fit into their own future.”

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.