Big cut to NC wildlife agency would hit close to home for hunters, anglers

cjarvis@newsobserver.comMay 25, 2013 

  • N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission

    Created in 1947, the commission’s mission is to conserve and sustain fish and wildlife. It also enforces the state’s hunting, fishing, trapping and boating laws. It employs biologists, wildlife officers, educators and others.

    The commission manages 2 million acres of public game land; 49 lakes and ponds, including 31 dams; 73 waterfowl impoundments; 1,878 miles of roads; six fish hatcheries; 58 public fishing areas; 211 public boating access areas; 1,400 navigational aids, and 137 buildings that include field stations and education centers.

Republicans swept into the legislature in 2011 on their promises to slash government spending, balance the budget and reduce taxes.

The budgets they’ve written so far might satisfy their political base by focusing on education and reducing the public workforce. But GOP budget-writers, still looking for cuts to offset massive Medicaid costs, are now chopping some services near and dear to the folks back home.

Case in point: Under the budget the Senate approved last week, the state agency that works with North Carolina’s hunting and boating enthusiasts would lose almost half its state funding.

The proposed $9 million cut in each of the next two fiscal years would be “crippling” to the state Wildlife Resources Commission, its executive director said.

Six-term Sen. Andrew Brock, a Republican who represents Davie, Iredell and Rowan counties, said legislators are sympathetic. One of the first things Republicans did after taking office in 2011 was form a “sportsmen’s caucus,” of which Brock, a lifelong hunter and fisherman, is a member.

“This is the toughest one,” Brock said of the wildlife cut, adding he hoped it could be restored when the economy improves.

“When you’ve got support for hunting and fishing like you do now in the General Assembly, we’ll try to get that back as soon as possible,” he said. “But with prisons closing down, and no one getting a great project built anywhere, we looked at each other and said, ‘We all suffer in this one.’ ”

Far-reaching effects of cuts

The cut would affect not only hunters and anglers, but to varying degrees anyone who uses the facilities the commission owns and operates: boating and fishing access areas, game lands, shooting ranges, fish hatcheries and education centers.

There would be layoffs, including in its law enforcement division, which accounts for 40 percent of the money it receives from the state, said Executive Director Gordon Myers. Less money from the state could also mean less money from the federal government, which requires certain thresholds before it gives matching grants.

Still, the agency dodged a bullet when it persuaded the Senate Appropriations Committee to delete provisions in the budget bill that would have allowed the commission to spend money from an endowment fund established in 1981 to support wildlife conservation programs. The fund is not supposed to be used to replace lost funding.

“It’s sort of like the sportsman’s 401(k) – that money was put in there to benefit our children and grandchildren and future generations,” said Eddie Bridges of Greensboro, who came up with the idea for the endowment funded by lifetime license sales when he was on the wildlife commission. “We’re very sensitive about that. It belongs to us. We want it to be protected.”

Hunters have some pull

Bridges, a key figure in the state’s hunting, fishing and conservation circles, is founder and executive director of the N.C. Wildlife Habitat Foundation. He was rallying opposition to the Senate plan to raid the endowment when the provision was abruptly dropped.

There are more than 1 million licensed hunters and anglers in North Carolina, according to the commission. Bridges said he thinks the politicians in Raleigh added that up pretty quickly.

“I think what happened is somebody finally realized that was political suicide to do a thing like that,” Bridges said. “It would be devastating for any of those people who planned to run again.”

Brock said the committee relented after the wildlife commission explained that a provision in the budget bill allowing the agency to plug the hole by dipping into the principal in the endowment fund would have led to an immediate loss of about $3 million in federal funds, which are awarded because the state safeguards ensure the principal is never spent. That would have been a $12 million hit on the commission.

Another provision would have allowed using the interest on the endowment investments to plug the $9 million hole. But Myers said that would deplete the available interest in less than two years. That would run contrary to what Myers describes as a conservative fiscal approach by using long-term investments to pay for daily operations, and stop the endowment from growing.

The endowment’s current market value is $105.7 million, Myers said.

Looking for more funds

Brock pointed out the agency’s total budget is about $68 million, which is composed of license fees and federal funds, and said there may be other ways of offsetting the $9 million cut, such as increasing fees for out-of-state hunters.

The wildlife agency itself is overdue for a review, he said. The Wildlife Resources Commission is one of the state boards that Republicans had targeted to replace its members with their own appointments, although it is not in the current plan.

“We’re trying to modernize and make sure it’s more reflective of the hunters and fishermen than in the past when it was just purely political appointees,” Brock said.

“We’re just saying, who’s got money? Can you use that to help us get through this? A lot of agencies have cash funds. If they can help us out this time, that would be wonderful. We think they can.”

Jarvis: 919-829-4576

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