Who Pays for Wildlife Conservation and Why We Shouldn’t Care

By Bob Ferris
 
Muir and Roosevelt
 
I have been watching this whole debate about who actually “pays” for wildlife for most of my three-decade career.  In point of fact it is a tough equation to resolve satisfactorily because a lot of it depends on what you include and how you count.  
 
Certainly hunters pay much for wildlife management on the state and also federal levels through various licenses, fees and taxes, but they also use wildlife (i.e., hunt and harvest) so they enjoy a privilege not legally available to those who do not participate in hunting or fishing.  And a good portion of the dollars spent in this arena go towards hunter and angler services such as licensing administration, law enforcement, hatcheries and the like.  
 
There is also the whole issue of habitat—particularly federal public lands—which contribute mightily to the well-being of many, many fish and game species.  These are lands owned by and supported by hunters and non-hunters alike.  The funds to purchase these lands come from so many sources from highway mitigation fees and the offshore-oil-drilling-financed Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to private and corporate donations.  
 
There is more on both sides but at some point these discussions become so much like those ill-advised and non-productive dialogues between couples with two incomes ping-ponging their relative worth in a relationship or negotiating for privileges that sometimes lead to couples therapy or worse.  To all involved in this all I can say is a heartfelt:  Please stop.  
 
To put it in the plainest and most appropriate analogy possible: While the estranged couple consisting of hunters (and anglers) and the environmental community are arguing over who pays more or whether or not wolves contribute to or drive ungulate declines in those rare areas where populations are going down, a very well-organized and deeply funded machine is essentially kidnapping this couple’s children and their future.
 
Think I am overstating the situation?  Then what do you call discussions to sell off or hyper-exploit our hard-fought-for public lands in the face of a growing population (hint: we actually need more and better protected public lands not less)?  Think about your public land experience over your lifetime and how it might have changed.  And then raise your hand if you want it to be worse still.  Anyone?  Anyone?
 
Likewise, what about plans to install a collection of climate change deniers in key positions of power in the Senate at a time when our climate-change canoe is about to go over the falls?  Past public statements by these yahoos make it clear that they do not have enough sense to pick up a paddle let alone steer us all for a safer shore.  Add to this the lack of awareness in this crowd about climate changes’ twin sister of doom—ocean acidification—and we see that we will likely have a two-year feeding frenzy that will take generations to solve if we ever can.
 
The news gets worse when you sprinkle into to this disastrous legislative caldron continual plans to recklessly extend the length of grazing leases on federal lands and pump up timber cuts on these same holdings.  How is any of this in the best interest of those of us who value nature regardless of how we enjoy it?  And wouldn’t climate prudency argue for shorter, better monitored grass leases and more carbon preserved in our standing forests rather than less?  
 
And, holy cripes, do we really need to allow fracking in our precious national parks so we can export more fossil-fuels to Asia and elsewhere to make them even more economically competitive and to make our climate and ocean situation worsen?  
 
We—sportspeople, the environmental community and those with feet in both camps—have not faced a threat to our common interests this large for nearly 20 years.  We were able to avoid the worst of the damage then—in that pre-Citizens’ United decision era—because we were willing to come together and work towards common goals.  Essentially, we talked and negotiated shared values and measures below which Congress could only venture at their peril.  The united front worked and the damage was minimized or at least contained.
 
Unfortunately, some who were key actors and collaborators in the mid-1990s have been worked diligently and forced to or tricked into burning critical bridges in the intervening years.   Moreover, some of our most effective players in Congress have been whittled away to nothing or are no longer breathing.  The fingerprints on these manipulations and re-education efforts are plain to anyone really watching and are mainly greasy, grassy, saw-dusty or sooty in nature.  
 
So what do we need to do?  First, we need to look at history not listen to what people who want the above disaster to continue or expand are telling us.  We have to remember once again that every time that the various “tribes” of conservation have been united, we have accomplished great and wonderful things for wildlife, future generations and ourselves or at the very least prevented catastrophe.  When we drift apart or let issues or interests drive us apart serious mischief happens.  
 
This holiday season whether you are hiking a trail, walking a field, sitting in a stand or blind, waiting for a bite, getting ready to do a Christmas Bird Count, or protesting a pipeline please take a hard look at yourself, your rhetoric, and the organizations you support.  Are you, your actions, and associations bringing the conservation tribes together or making them even more fragmented and less able to meet this incredible challenge?  Are you investing your energies reaching out or are you building more and more walls? 
 
Look also at the issues that occupy you or your organizations.  If public lands, climate change, habitat, as well as supporting our cornerstone environmental protections (i.e., Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts) are not in clear evidence then you need to ask: Why not?  If these are not front and center on the menu, there is a good chance that funders, donors, or governing bodies took them out.  I say this because in 1996 the whole set of conservation tribes agreed that these were the most important—so much so that Safari Club International and HSUS sat at the same table as Defenders of Wildlife and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.  
 
US Trends of Concern
The only things that have changed in the intervening years is that the problems and threats have grown even worse (see “then” and “now” numbers above), we understand our peril better, and bucket upon bucket load of money has been invested in making sure that the various conservation tribes are driven apart.  The latter should really not have made us forget about the former if we were truly focused on what needed to be done.
 
As to what positive, direct steps you can take once the reality of the situation becomes clearer in your mind, my sense is that we should all thoughtfully do the unexpected and see what happens.  For instance, why not smile at a person wearing camouflage or hug a tree-hugger?  Engage people in dialogues; you know why you hold your own beliefs, but why not ask someone respectfully and honestly why they hold theirs?   And do everything you can to raise awareness of these issues and project a willingness to work with a diverse group to solve them in a collaborative manner.  In essence, understand that there is a real crisis and remember what Americans can do in the face of crises (i.e., set aside their myriad differences, roll up their sleeves and fix the problem).  
 
And we need to act decisively before this predetermined and increasingly ghastly scenario gets irrevocably implemented.  Because while I may not be able to tell with exactitude who paid for what and where in terms of conservation, I can say that we will all pay too dearly if we neglect to hear this call to find ways to work together.
 

 

One thought on “Who Pays for Wildlife Conservation and Why We Shouldn’t Care

  1. Peter Nelson says:

    Excellent and thoughtful essay, Bob! Thank you.

    It occurs to me that part of the problem is our varied but usually ill-defined relationship to nature. Hunters and fishermen are obviously "consumers", but also, as you point out, contributers, at the very least in the form of the fees and taxes they pay to support wildlife management. I think it's more important, and more frequently forgotten, that we all affect the world around–merely by inhaling and exhaling we affect the atmospheric composition. Even after death, our decomposing bodies will enter the soil and water, vestiges of our material life remain, children raise grandchildren.

    As in any relationship, one does have some say in the dynamic: You can choose to fill your elk tag (or try!), eat at McDonalds, recycle or drive the biggest gas-guzzler available. Not all options are available to everyone. However, a conscious approach to our relationship with the world around us should lead to a more future-oriented approach.

    Arguing about who contributes more or takes the biggest piece of the pie is, as you point out, mostly fruitless. I'm no therapist, but I'd bet that any worth their fee would try to help a struggling couple to focus on the relationship that they share, to work towards its care and preservation and good health to the best of each individual's ability. A failed marriage may have few repercussions or could leave lasting damage, but to fail in our relationship with the world around us is to lose our place in that world altogether.

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