DU: Price of federal duck stamp should go up
New Orleans (AP) – Given the current political climate, it's easy to consider Dale Hall a hopeless optimist when reading this: the CEO of Ducks Unlimited is pushing Congress to raise the price of the federal duck stamp from $15 to $25. But then you want to change "hopeless optimist'' to "just plain crazy'' when you read this: While waiting for Congress to act, DU is asking hunters to "Double Up for Ducks'' by voluntarily buying two of the $15 stamps instead of the required one.
Hey, doesn't Hall know there's a recession on? Doesn't he understand that "fee'' is just a euphemism for the t-word (tax)? Doesn't he understand that dozens of Congress members have taken a sacred pledge not to raise taxes, and that anyone who even suggests raising them – especially for anything as silly as conservation – is not a serious, red-blooded American?
Hall has heard it all. And his answer is simple.
"Look at history,'' he said. "Some of the greatest, most effective conservation programs in history were started during the Great Depression. That's when sportsmen urged Congress to put fees and taxes on them with the duck stamp.
"No disrespect to this Congress, but I think things were a little bit tougher back then. If we could do it then we certainly can – and should – do it now.''
Hard to argue that point.
A look back at 1934 makes today's problems look like playtime. The Great Depression was in full swing, 21 percent of Americans could not find work, and the Dust Bowl had turned much of the Farm Belt into a desert.
But in the midst of those crises, sportsmen demanded Congress make time for conservation by taxing them. Congress listened and the entire nation benefited.
The Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act of 1934 – creating the duck stamp – is arguably the most effective and efficient conservation program of all time. The law required the funding to be used for the "purchase, development, and maintenance'' of waterfowl refuges. Statistics show how that worked out: Approximately 98 cents of each of the more than $500 million collected since 1934 has gone to purchase five million acres of wetlands and wildlife habitat, much of it in the National Wildlife Refuge system, where it benefits all wildlife, not just ducks.
The initial $1 cost of the duck stamp has slowly been raised, eventually hitting $15 in 1991, where it remains today. That's not a small fee, especially when you consider hunters also have to purchase state licenses and, in many cases, state duck stamps.
But the value of a dollar seldom rises over time. So the impact of that $15 stamp has been eroded over the last two decades.
"The cost of the stamp hasn't gone up in over 20 years, but unfortunately the cost of land just keeps getting higher,'' Hall said. "That means the buying power of the stamp is decreasing, and at a time when we need it more than ever.''
In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports since 1991, land prices in targeted areas have tripled from an average of $306 an acre to an average of $1,091 an acre. The spread of ethanol and other crop-dependent biofuels is only making that problems worse.
Recent studies show that at current conversion rates, half of the most critical prairie pothole wetlands complexes we have left – the engines that drive most duck production in the United States – will be gone in 34 years.
Just like 1934, conservation has a crying need, and just like that era the nation is in a financial crisis, this one The Great Recession. But this time we have a Congress that looks at conservation spending with little more than a shrug, if not out-right hostility. The House majority has unleashed a full frontal attack on environmental regulations in general, and wetlands protections in particular. Ignoring the important role those habitat play for fish, wildlife and humans, several bills would remove vital regulations that have protected wetlands for generations.
It gets worse. This Congress, especially the House, has placed conservation programs at the top of the hit list as it begins to trim some $1.2 trillion in spending over the next 10 years. Key fish and wildlife programs – from the Conservation Reserve Program to the National Wetlands Conservation Act funding – have been targeted for deep cuts.
Conservation groups like DU know that their only chance to limit the damage will be to increase programs that are funded by willing, voluntary givers. That group has always been headed by sportsmen.
But even that will be a tough road without vocal support, because many in this Congress – especially the House – regard voluntary fee increases with a sneer.
Still, Hall knows his organization and hunters have no choice but to press their case.
"There is a lot of nervousness around about that,'' he admitted, "but our message remains strong and loud and consistent. We don't view this as a tax, but an investment in conservation. It was asked for by hunters since 1934, and it's still supported by hunters because we consider this as a long-term investment for the hunter.
"Sure, there are people saying this isn't the right time. But, look, sportsmen and Congress stepped up 1934. And I think times were a little tougher back then.''
Hard to argue with that.