March 09, 2016
In 1937, in the middle of the Great Depression, America faced an unprecedented environmental crisis. Much of the nation’s heartland was stricken by the Dust Bowl. Imprudent development destroyed millions of acres of wetlands and other critical wildlife habitat. Many wildlife species were tottering on the brink of extinction.
Responding to this crisis, the nation’s sportsmen successfully lobbied Congress to pass what is arguably the most effective conservation law in history: the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act. In effect, sportsmen selflessly convinced Congress to tax them to fund conservation. The act established an excise tax on firearms, ammunition and archery equipment that is apportioned to states to support the conservation mission of their wildlife agencies.
In 1947, Michigan Congressman John Dingell introduced a bill patterned after Pittman-Robertson to impose an excise tax on certain recreational fishing equipment. The monies collected through the proposed legislation were to be returned to the states to help fund sport fish programs. Although vetoed by President Truman, the bill received broad support from the country’s growing number of anglers.
In 1950, Congressman Dingell and Colorado Senator Edwin Johnson introduced a revised version and, on August 9, 1950, President Truman signed the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act into law. The act, commonly known as Dingell-Johnson, applied a 10-percent manufacturers’ excise tax to fishing rods, reels, lures and other tackle, with the revenue earmarked for state-based sport fish restoration projects.
The Dingell-Johnson Act provided the perfect complement to the earlier Pittman-Robertson legislation. Now, aquatic habitats and species would reap similar benefits afforded their terrestrial counterparts. Equally important, anglers joined hunters in investing in and supporting conservation programs aimed at saving this country’s fish and wildlife heritage.
The Recreational Boating Safety Program was established in 1971 to fund boating safety and education programs, and amended in 1980 to draw its funding from taxes on motorboat fuels. It was combined with Dingell-Johnson in 1984 under the Wallop-Breaux Act, which expanded the 10-percent excise tax to nearly all sportfishing equipment and captured over half the federal motorboat fuel taxes that were paid by boaters and anglers. This combination substantially increased the funds collected by the federal government to be returned to the states for fishing and boating-related projects. Money from these taxes is deposited into the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund (SFRBTF) before being apportioned to the states.
To say that these programs have been successful would be an understatement. Since the inception of the Sport Fish Restoration Act 65 years ago, more than $7.5 billion have been collected and allocated to the states. In 2015 alone, more than $600 million was distributed from the trust fund. During the past eight years, the funds have resulted in more than 3.8 billion fish being stocked, 11,000-plus boat ramps and access sites being created or renovated and 4.7 million students being taught aquatic education. In addition, more than 63,000 acres of fish habitat has been protected and more than half a million boaters and anglers completed an approved state boating safety education course.
“These funds are the cornerstone of state-based efforts that are critical to the preservation of America’s wildlife and natural resources,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “But they are also the fuel for a massive financial engine that benefits outdoor recreationists, hunters, boaters and anglers, equipment manufacturers and retailers, and local and regional economies. Their value cannot be overstated in providing opportunities for the next generation of Americans to get outdoors, experience our wild places and learn the importance of conserving our natural heritage.”
The SFRBTF is a permanent federal program, but it could not continue to be as effective as it has without one of its major sources of funding from the Federal Highway Trust Fund. Every few years, the Highway Fund must be reauthorized in order for the SFRBTF to capture federal fuel tax revenues.
The SFRBTF was set to expire in 2016, so last year, Reps. Garret Graves (R-La.) and Gwen Graham (D-Fla.) introduced a bill to adjust the way money from the fund is distributed. The bill failed to get any floor time at the committee level, however.
Then, on Dec. 3, 2015, after significant lobbying by many boating and angling organizations, the House and Senate reached a five-year agreement to operate and fund national highway and surface transportation projects. Unlike patchwork bills seen the past few years, the agreement, called the FAST Act, was fully funded at $305 billion, passing just days before its expiration date. The legislation includes minor policy changes to the SFRBTF and, most importantly, it secures funding of approximately $600 million per year through 2020.
The FAST Act was signed into law by President Obama on Dec. 4. And through its signing, the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund was reauthorized for five more years. That’s an achievement everyone in the fishing and boating communities can rejoice about.
“Some in Washington might have viewed these boater and angler tax dollars as a way to solve their own budget problems,” said Margaret Podlich, president of BoatUS, one of several organizations that has worked to make certain SFRBTF money continues to be used for key boating and fishing programs. “… this reauthorization ensures that the money boaters and anglers pay stays intact for the intended use: saving lives, keeping our fish stocks healthy and making it easier to enjoy the water.”
The SFRBTF is permanent, so excise taxes will continue to be collected and given out as they have been for the past 65 years. However, the percentages collected and deposited could change. For example, gasoline taxes could be raised or lowered and that would affect the amount of money going into the trust fund.
There are also elected officials who would like to raid the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund to shore up programs that will fix ailing roads and bridges without raising taxes.
That’s why it’s imperative that all of us who enjoy boating and fishing make sure elected officials understand how necessary this fund is for the health of our natural resources and the continuation of our sporting heritage. Everyone who supports the conservation of our nation’s waterways and fisheries—whether they fish or not—needs to be aware that it’s the sporting community that foots the bill for this important work.