Monday, February 6th, 2023
Monday, February 6th, 2023

Breaking News for

Sportsmen Since 1967

The director’s take on fee increases, budget

By Bill
Parker

Editor

Lansing – The financial hardships that have hit the DNR due to
stagnant user fees and reductions in allocations from the state
general fund have resulted in cuts in personnel and programs. A
controversial proposal has been sent to the state Legislature to
substantially raise hunting, fishing, and trapping license
fees.

Can that proposal be amended? How much of a license fee increase
is needed to maintain the status quo at the DNR? How severe is the
deficit and what happens if new revenue is not found? Is hunting
the top priority when management decisions are made?

DNR Director Rebecca Humphries sat down recently with Michigan
Outdoor News for an exclusive interview and answered these
questions and others. Following is the first half of the interview.
Check out the March 16 edition of MON for the rest of the
interview.

MON: With the state of the nation and state of the state
speeches recently being given, what’s the state of the DNR?

Humphries: ‘We’re a smaller organization than we were,
historically, but, by and large we’re every bit as committed to
natural resource management as we ever have been. We’re trying to
do the best we can with the resources we have, both natural
resources and the financial resources to manage them. I think we’re
all struggling in terms of what’s the right solution down the road
to fund conservation, not only here in Michigan, but across the
country.

‘We’ve cut so much of the general fund out, and so much at the
national level is being devoted to other issues, like the war in
Iraq, that it really has put a strain on (funding). We’ve had to
become much more reliant on specialized, targeted funding like our
license fees or camping fees or ORV stickers. Now, they are our
bread and butter. That has pluses and minuses. It’s good for those
folks who feel strongly about the issues that come with those fees,
and making sure they really have a place at the table in terms of
how those resources are managed, is important. The drawback is that
our trust responsibilities are much broader than those fee bases
really allow us to manage, and second of all we need to make sure
that we’re not getting to far afield from what society as a whole
wants us to do.

‘It’s a balancing act. You’ve heard that in terms of deer
management. The hunters feel that other individuals who don’t hunt
really shouldn’t have a say in it, but we just can’t operate that
way. It has to be a balanced approach that provides really good
deer herd management for a healthy herd in sync with its habitat
that provides recreational opportunities – days afield – yet isn’t
so overburdensome in terms of deer numbers that we have disease
issues and major damage issues.’

MON: A lot of hunters feel that since their money is the brunt
of what’s being generated for those types of programs that hunters
should get first priority in terms of management decisions; we
should be managing for hunting first and everything else second. Is
that the way it is?

Humphries: ‘Certainly, we are managing those species. But the
licenses don’t necessarily dictate that we manage solely for
hunting. Never was a hunting license a payment for the animal, as
much as an opportunity to go afield and to do conservation.

‘The key that I don’t want us to lose is that sportsmen’s
dollars are invested very heavily in restoration of species and
conservation. Many of the species that hunter dollars were spent on
in the early years weren’t even huntable species. That’s a really
proud legacy. Hunters have paid for the reintroduction and
establishment of white-tailed deer in areas where we didn’t have
them through DRIP (Deer Range Improvement Project) dollars and
habitat management; of wild turkeys before we had huntable
populations of wild turkeys in the state. Part of our license money
has gone into how we handle wolves in the state. Now, that doesn’t
mean that they won’t be a huntable species down the road, but
that’s part of the conservation legacy.

‘I think it’s real important that people not get so narrow that
they think about it in terms of just hunting, and that what we do
is solely to provide the success rate, and that the success rate
has to continue to increase every year. Some years it’s not going
to.

MON: Based on comments we’ve received at MON, it’s hard for some
hunters to look beyond the successful/not successful aspect of
hunting in relationship to the proposed license fee increase. How
do you address that issue?

Humphries: ‘I think a lot of it’s emotion. I think there’s
sticker shock. The work group report (Hunting and Fishing License
Package Development Work Group Final Report , Nov. 9, 2006) that
came out really provided a lot of latitude Š for someone in the
Legislature to really propose an implementation. The work group
felt, ultimately, that those are maximum levels for our licenses at
this point in time. Down the road we should tie them to inflation.
But how we implement those or how we discount those, they were
giving the Department and the Legislature a lot of latitude as they
work through it.

‘I think the work group report was good in the fact that they
really did look at our programs. I think the work group was pretty
adamant that we’ve probably gone a little too far in terms of cuts.
They felt that we need a few more (conservation) officers in the
field and a couple of our programs beefed up a little bit. We have
reduced staff and we have lived very frugally to the point where
we’ve really reduced some programs, probably a little further than
people would like to see.

‘On the other hand, when you don’t increase license fees,
inflation just eats you up. (The proposed increase in license fees)
comes at a bad time, when Michigan’s economy is hurting. A lot of
folks’ personal budgets are really flat and inflation is eating
them up. I really feel bad for them. Nobody likes the idea of
license increases and we don’t want to drive a single sportsperson
out of the field; we want to keep everybody hunting that we
possibly can. But we also want to make sure the resources are well
managed and that we have the staff and the scientific data to fight
off lawsuits and challenges to hunting and that we manage them for
now and for future generations.’

MON: How severe is the budget deficit within the DNR?

Humphries: ‘It’s pretty severe. We have trimmed and trimmed, and
stretched those $1 increases to the point where we’re a little over
$8 million (short) in the next budget Š We’ll build in a license
increase (into the proposed DNR budget), but in boiler plate there
will be cuts to make that up. There’ll be bodies out the door and
programs cut with that (deficit). It’s pretty substantial. Then it
grows to over $40 million by 2010. With inflation, it tends to
compound and get worse and worse when revenue is flat.

‘Despite all the reports you see that Michigan is the worst
recruitment and retention state, there were some math errors in the
Sporting Alliance report. We’re actually about in the middle of the
pack. We’re declining, but a little slower than most of the other
states in terms of losses of licensed hunters.’

MON: The $8 million deficit, is that just in the Fish and Game
Fund for the 2008 budget or is it across the board in the DNR
budget?

Humphries: ‘It’s primarily hunting and fishing, the Fish and
Game Fund, but also there are some shortfalls in the Forest
Development Fund in that year’s budget. The Forest Development Fund
comes from timber revenues and timber revenues had been real high,
but the market has gone very soft. They’ve had plant closings, and
right now most of the mills are very full. We’re not even getting
bids on a lot of our timber sales. Until that market rebounds – and
there are some indications it will but it probably won’t go up as
high as it is – we’re struggling in terms of timber revenues also.
That (revenue) supports forest management activity so they can go
out and mark more timber and do timber stand improvements to invest
in the future and create wildlife habitat. It also helps fund some
of our forest recreation and it funds some of our fire
suppression.’

MON: Is it just hunting and fishing license fees that are being
looked at to generate revenue to eliminate this short-term
deficit?

Humphries: ‘No. There are other things, too. Camping fees for
the state forest lands (is being considered). We have to give
notice to the state Legislature that it’s our intent to raise those
fees, so we have notification in. We have the authority to raise
some of the parks fees and we did that the year before last.

‘We have also passed commercial use fees. One of the areas where
our users and our own folks felt that we were light is that we get
a lot of folks who want to use public lands for commercial use. Our
fees were pretty nominal and some of these events were pretty big
revenue generators on state land. We now have commercial use fees
that we charge folks. For individuals like boat liveries or canoe
liveries who want to use an access site, now there is an
appropriate way to charge those folks so there is some compensation
back to pay for that access site that they use as part of their
business.’

MON: Has there been any movement in the Legislature as far as
finding a sponsor for the proposed license fee package?

Humphries: ‘It’s always a hurdle. We only get a license package
through (the Legislature) about every 10 years, we get them through
by the skin of our teeth, then we have it taken out of our hides
for the next four years afterwards. It’s tough, but hopefully we’ve
got some folks that are interested enough in conservation that will
work with us. We’ve had a few legislators who expressed interest to
work with us and we’ve been putting together our recommendations as
far as language. (NRC Chairman) Keith Charters has also had some
discussions with some key legislators in terms of what are some
ways we can bite this off in pieces so we can implement it in
smaller pieces and it’s not doubling license fees all in one year,
but that we can walk to where we need to go – something that will
keep us from having to lay off major components of our work force,
and more importantly cut program areas.’

MON: Have you looked at those cuts for 2008? Have the decisions
been made as far as what will be cut if a license fee increase is
not approved?

Humphries: ‘We have, but I can’t share them at this point. We
have not looked at 2009 or 2010. Part of the reason is, quite
frankly, we’ll have to look at completely overhauling things if we
march down that path. It’s one thing to continue to tighten the
belt and then chop $8 million, $9 million out of a budget, but when
you get up to $40 million (the projected deficit for 2010) you’re
redesigning the department at that point. We’d have to take a very
serious look at how we do business.’

MON: Has there been any considerations to amend the
proposal?

Humphries: ‘The intent was never supposed to be implemented as
it was. The recommendations were maximum. From Day One it was
negotiable for anybody who wanted to come in and implement this.
How we put it in place over time; the discounts, how we make that
happen, is very negotiable.

‘The work group was not adamant that it has to happen here. This
was their best recommendation on what they thought should be
overall funding for the department. This is about what fees we are
going to have to look like to get us there. Then we’re going to
have to tie them to inflation if we don’t want to be right back in
the mess we’re in right now.’

MON: How much of an increase is needed right now, by April, to
keep things as they are right now and to not lay anyone off or cut
any more programs?

Humphries: ‘Somewhere in the $3 to $5 range, on average. Some of
our license fees, we know, have a fair amount of elasticity in
them. For instance, trout fishermen: By and large people who buy an
all-species fishing license have a little more flexibility in terms
of what they’re willing to pay as opposed to somebody who just
wants to buy a fishing license and go out and catch a few
panfish.

‘Our license buyers in Michigan are pretty interesting when you
look at the statistics. A couple of interesting things are
occurring. Number one, our average license buyer for hunting is 43
years old. The work group was real impressed by that figure because
as that person ages, when they hit that 60-percent discount mark,
holy smoke, how are we ever going to afford it? That’s why they
wanted to knock down the discount rate for seniors. It’s not very
popular. It never has been, but it’s probably time we look at the
senior discount as a discount, not an entitlement program.

‘The other thing is that hunters buy 2.3 licenses. What can we
do to get hunters to be better buyers? What can we do to get
hunters to buy one more license? I think we’re going to have to be
creative on how we package it for folks to get them to think about
that.

‘On the same note, we know that we get about the same number of
licensed deer hunters each and every year and we always thought it
was the same people. Now we know there’s a pretty big segment – in
the upper 30-percent range – of people that buy a deer license this
year, and don’t buy one next year. That’s scary the first time you
look at it – 30 to 40 percent of hunters could drop out in any one
year. The flip side is that it’s also a huge advantage. If we could
get some sort of incentive to get hunters who normally buy a
license every couple of years to buy a license consistently, every
single year, think what that would do to the number of license
buyers out there. The other benefit is that as hunter numbers go up
we get more PR (Pittman-Robertson) money. That’s pretty significant
at almost $9 per hunter.

(Check the next edition of MON for the rest of the interview
with DNR Director Rebecca Humphries. Learn how much hunting and
fishing license money is spent on things like ORV trail management
and snowmobile trail grooming; if other departments within the DNR
are suffering financially; what types of cuts may take place if
revenue doesn’t increase; and more.)

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