Time not here to raise license fees

October 29, 2009 at 09:52 PM

Conservation-minded folks gathered last weekend in Springfield and came to an obvious conclusion: We need stable funding for conservation in Illinois.

Few can argue that the long-term savior of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is some form of dedicated funding that’s safe from greedy governors.

But participants in the reborn Conservation Congress also came to a conclusion that to me is not so obvious. Among their recommendations after two days of meetings was support for increasing the cost of hunting and fishing licenses and some hunting permits.

In the days since, that message has been trumpeted by the Department of Natural Resources in a last-ditch effort to generate legislative approval during this week’s veto session.

Personally, I expect and hope the increases will fail.

Yes, this is a flip-flop. When license increases were first proposed, I backed them. My thinking then was that DNR was suffering and desperately needed help. That’s still true. But raising a few fees is just a band-aid on a bullet wound. Maybe things have to get even worse before they can get better.

Part of the appeal of last summer’s proposal was that it included creative ways to spread the funding burden. There was discussion of creating a parking fee to use state parks. An equestrian fee. Swimming fees.

DNR Director Marc Miller said on Monday that new user fees are no longer on the table. Instead, Senate Bill 1846 asks for more from those who already keep DNR afloat. The bill would up deer permits from $15 to $25, increase the waterfowl stamp from $10 to $15 and raise hunting licenses by $5 and fishing licenses by $2.

In outlining the plan, Miller noted deer permits were last increased 25 years ago and waterfowl stamps have been unchanged since 1990.

So what. Tell me, when was the last increase in the birdwatcher stamp? Never. There’s no such thing.

When is the last time equestrians paid to ride trails on state land?

And don’t use the argument that they are taxpayers so they are already paying. Hunters and anglers pay taxes, too. On top of that they’ve basically bankrolled conservation since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.

Now they are being asked to pay even more. I say not so fast.

You want support for fee increases? Be specific about how money will be used. Why should we pay more? Who will be hired? What land will be purchased? How will access be increased?

We all heard vague promises when non-resident deer permit fees were increased. Does anyone know where that money and those promises have gone?
Miller talks often about restoring faith in the DNR. He’s done plenty towards that end in a relatively short period of time. But in this case he has not outlined enough specifics.

You want support for license fee increases? Get rid of a few deputy directors and middle-management appointees and hire biologists and front-line staff.

You want support for license fee increases? Find a way to make non-consumptive users pay.

And don’t tell me it’s politically impossible to create new fees. If that’s true, then it should be equally impossible to raise fees on hunters and anglers.

With that in mind, here’s a suggestion: work toward the creation of a parking fee at state parks. But not as previously proposed. Instead, give free parking permits to anyone in Illinois who buys a hunting or fishing license. Have the computer print a piece of paper that license purchasers can place on their dashboard. Those who don’t buy licenses must pay for the same piece of paper to utilize state land.

A simple plan like this would tap into non-traditional sources of funding and would increase the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. That’s when I would start talking about raising the price of hunting and fishing licenses.