Later this year the conservation community will celebrate the 75th anniversary of federal legislation that keeps state wildlife agencies afloat. On Sept. 2, 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act. More commonly known as the Pittman-Robertson (P-R) Act, it honors its chief sponsors, Sen. Key Pittman, D-Nev., and Rep. Willis Robertson, D-Va. (who was born in Martinsburg).
It's difficult to imagine the sacrifice sportsmen, primarily hunters, made back in the early 1930s as this legislation was formulated. The P-R Act called for a federal excise tax on sporting arms to ensure a solid financial base for wildlife conservation. Sportsmen demanded that they be taxed to ensure the future of wildlife.
It worked. Through 2011, the P-R Act has raised more than $6 billion for state wildlife agencies nationwide. That includes nearly $400 million in fiscal year 2011. Federal agencies collect an 11 percent tax on sporting arms (rifles, shot guns, ammunition, bows and archery accessories). In 1970, a provision was added to collect a 10 percent tax on the sale of pistols and revolvers.
P-R funds are used to share up to 75 percent of the cost of wildlife research, land acquisition, habitat management, hunter education and safety programs, and the construction and operation of shooting ranges.
Funds are distributed to the states based on a formula based on each state's land area and the number of paid hunting license holders. This ensures that large, sparsely populated, western states can compete fairly with smaller, more densely populated eastern states.
The genius of the P-R Act was that it stipulates that states can receive P-R funds only if their laws prohibit diverting hunting license revenues to any purpose other than wildlife conservation. In budget year 2010-2011, for example, the Pennsylvania Game Commission received more than $18.8 million in federal aid. The P-R Act is why Pennsylvania's $33.9 million in licenses and fees (2010-2011) stay with its Game Commission.
Hunters and sportsmen's clubs everywhere should plan to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the P-R Act. Without it, states' hunting tradition and heritage would likely be a distant memory.
But birders, hikers, leaf peepers and tree huggers of every ilk should celebrate, too. Without P-R funds, there would be few if any state game lands for the public to enjoy. Hunters use these lands extensively during deer and turkey seasons, but the rest of the year they are open to anyone.
And the habitat that was purchased with hunters' dollars is used by all wildlife. Songbirds, hawks, owls, butterflies, dragonflies, frog, salamanders, frogs, toads, snakes, turtles and lizards don't know or care who provided the land. They use it as freely as game species do. And don't forget the trees, shrubs, vines and wildflowers. Absent state wildlife areas, plants would suffer, too.
In fact, birders and nature lovers have rarely been required to contribute to conservation. Anyone can support conservation by purchasing a hunting license. The easiest way for the state wildlife agencies to get more federal aid would be to sell more hunting licenses. It doesn't matter whether the licenses are used. Nothing would level the conservation playing field more than nonhunters buying hunting licenses. And display that license proudly any time you're outdoors.
The P-R Act proved to be such a success, it was used as a model for the Federal Aid in Fish Restoration Act in 1950. The Dingell-Johnson (D-J) Act, best known by the initials of its congressional sponsors, authorized a 10 percent federal excise tax on fishing tackle -- rods, reels, lures and flies. The redistribution of these funds is based on a formula that considers each state's water area and the number of fishing licenses sold. Since its inception, the D-J Act has generated more than $2.6 billion. The fund supports research, habitat acquisition, hatchery construction, and education.
In 1984, the D-J Act was amended to include excise taxes on motorboat fuels and previously untaxed sport fishing gear. Today the program also supports aquatic education, wetlands conservation and boating safety.
So when you buy your first hunting license to support conservation, buy a fishing license, too. Your grandchildren will thank you.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033 or email sshala...@aol.com.