Category: Strategic Plans
Published: September 2018
Our fish and wildlife resources and the natural lands on which they depend are at risk. The challenge of adequately funding fish and wildlife is not unique to Washington, but it is acute here. The Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), the State's main steward of fish and wildlife populations and habitat, is facing significant, chronic, structural budget shortfalls. If action is not taken, deep cuts in services across the board will be needed to balance the books. Even if funding were increased to keep services at their current level, the investment is still woefully inadequate. Nationally, the National Wildlife Federation estimates that we are funding the work called for in the State Wildlife Action Plans for species of greatest concern no more than 5 percent of need. In Washington, DFW estimates the funding is less than 5 percent. Salmon and steelhead recovery is lagging behind what is desired, and Southern Resident Killer Whales face extinction if diminishing population trends cannot be reversed.
DFW's mission - to preserve, protect and perpetuate fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities - remains vital and is increasingly important to supporting economic prosperity, promoting public health, and ensuring a high quality of life for all Washingtonians, regardless of whether they ever hunt, fish, or visit a wildlife area. We need a fish and wildlife agency that can better serve the broad need to conserve native species and their habitats to benefit all Washingtonians, including those who hunt, fish, camp, wildlife watch, or simply enjoy the proximity of nature.
Investment in fish and wildlife not only helps ensure a high-quality of life by providing health and recreation benefits, and contributing to a good business and employment climate, it also directly increases state revenue. The Washington Department of Revenue estimates that hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching will contribute nearly $340 million dollars to the State General Fund in the 2017-19 biennium through sales tax and business and occupation taxes. 3 This revenue is three and a half times the amount of general fund appropriated to DFW. Spending on hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching flow through local economies to improve livelihoods for real people and small businesses throughout the state, creating additional economic benefit. We sustain these economic benefits by investing in the work needed to sustain healthy fish and wildlife populations and natural lands, and create opportunities for people to be out in nature.
In 2017, the Legislature directed DFW to develop a plan for long-term funding. The immediate need was to address significant, chronic, structural budget shortfalls in DFW. Looking to the future, a long-term funding plan also is needed as part of a package of improvements to meet the evolving challenges of conservation. Washington State is one of the smallest western states by geography, yet its population and economy are growing at rates among the highest in the country. Hunting and fishing, long a source of revenue for DFW through license fees and federal funding tied to these activities, are declining, while other uses of public lands are increasing. Reliable, adequate funding - and new partnerships and new strategies - are needed if we are to pass our fish and wildlife resources, and the health and economic benefits they create, on to future generations.
DFW's funding simply has not kept pace with its responsibilities. DFW's general fund appropriation is less now than it was in 2008, even though costs of everything from staff salaries to fish food for hatcheries have gone up. Hunting and recreational fishing license fees have not increased since 2011 and the Discover Pass access fee has not increased since it was established. DFW is under-resourced and overburdened with emerging, unfunded mandates. This feeds a vicious cycle of constituents feeling underserved.
Cost cutting and tightening belts won't solve the problem. At the direction of the legislature, and working with the Office of Financial Management, DFW underwent an independent third-party assessment of their operations and management practices. This assessment did not reveal any major cost savings to be found from improving efficiency within DFW. Most of the recommendations in the report - on improving technology for example - will cost more money to implement.
DFW is facing a budget shortfall of more than $30 million in 2019-21 biennium and estimates that an additional $28 million is needed to make important progress in areas like conserving species before they become threatened and endangered and improving opportunity for hunting and fishing. DFW has used a number of strategies such as maintaining vacancies and spending down fund balances to bridge budget shortfalls in the past but these options have run out, meaning there will be real service cuts if new funding is not obtained.
We're at a tipping point in terms of our investments in fish and wildlife - many stakeholders already feel underserved and we're at risk of real program cuts and real impacts to species if funding is not increased and stabilized.
DFW prepared this plan with a group of stakeholders representing fish, wildlife, recreation, land management, and conservation interests. Seven recommendations are made to address sustainable long-term funding. (See box at left.) At the center is the idea that most funding for fish and wildlife should come from broad-based sources of revenue because the health, wellbeing, and economic benefits of fish, wildlife, and natural lands are broadly felt by all Washingtonians, and because the protection of fish and wildlife resources is held by the state as a public trust and responsibility under tribal treaties. Hunting and fishing licenses and other recreation or access fees should supplement - not replace - broad based funding. This is a transformative concept - appropriate to the need to make real changes to ensure healthy fish and wildlife resources for all Washingtonians, for years to come.
Additional recommendations address continuous improvement, stakeholder and public engagement, and strategic planning as ways to improve Department services, increase the transparency of funding decisions, and foster an environment of support for adequate fish and wildlife funding.
Although the challenges to fish and wildlife conservation are significant, they can and must be met. Other states have already acted in this area - including four states (Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, and Missouri) which dedicate a portion of sales tax to conservation and eight states which dedicate real estate or other taxes (Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia). Five states authorize bonds for investment in conservation and recreation including California which just passed a $4.1 billion bond measure focused on natural resource conservation and resiliency, parks and recreation, flood protection, groundwater recharge and cleanup, safe drinking water, and water recycling. Lessons from these states can help us find our way.
Stakeholders, exemplified by the Budget and Policy Advisory Group, are coming together to support new partnerships, better strategies, and more, and more reliable, investment in fish and wildlife. Now is the time for leadership at DFW, in the Fish and Wildlife Commission, and in the Legislature to embrace this convergence and take action.
This plan is a first step. It lays out the problem, sets a vision for sustainable long-term funding, and provides a set of ideas to get started. More work is needed to bring those ideas to fruition.
In 2019 DFW will propose a package of budget and legislative proposals totaling approximately $67 million designed to maintain current services and make a down payment on the investment needed to get fish and wildlife conservation on a sustainable path. It will ask for funding mainly from broad-based sources of revenue and secondarily from a modest increase in licenses and fees. Simultaneously DFW will engage in a visioning and strategic planning effort with the Budget and Policy Advisory Group to inform and bolster future funding decisions and priorities.