Federal-state funding plan has added millions of acres for hunting, angling, recreation
The evidence is there, in long rows of numbers and words that detail where the land was purchased, and when, and — most important — how much.
But numbers and words don’t explain how a lake sparkles beneath a rising sun. They cannot convey the scent of pine needles, the rapid-fire hammering of a woodpecker. The sums cannot add to the thrill of seeing a mama bear and her cubs stick inquisitive noses into a forest clearing.
No, for that you need witnesses — people who have taken to field and stream to sample the best of nature’s gifts. A federal-state alliance based on the sales of hunting and fishing licenses has ensured there are plenty who have that opportunity.
The present-day funding dates back to 1937, when Congress passed the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act. The act directed revenues from the taxes on the sale of arms and ammunition be set aside to fund wildlife restoration. It created a formula for states to receive funds provided the participating states matched the federal money with funds of their own — typically a 75 percent federal/25 percent state split.
Sport fisheries funding followed with a congressional act in 1950, establishing a funding source that could be used for land acquisition for boat ramps and related fishing tracts in addition to fisheries research, and populaton and habitat management. The revenue from taxes on fishing tackle and a portio of the gasoline fuel tax is apportioned to states based on each state’s land area and their number of fishing license holders.
Today, those initiatives are known as the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program — WSFR, in the parlance of biologists, conservationists and others committed to creating pristine public spaces. The program oversees how those funds are distributed and used in the Southeast as well as elsewhere across the country and its territories.
The restoration program, Service and other administrators agree, has done great things for hunting and fishing across the Southeast. State wildlife agencies from Florida to Arkansas to North Carolina have acquired more than 1.2 million acres since the acts took effect—more than 164,000 acres in the last five fiscal years. Most of that land has been turned into WMAs, an acronym for wildlife management areas. Those parcels are part of a system that comprises more than 15 million acres.
“To me, there’s nothing more important the states can do with these funds,” said Alex Coley, the restoration program’s lands specialist in the Service’s southeastern region. Coley works with state wildlife agencies to acquire land with federal and state dollars. “It’s there for sportsmen, for hunters, anglers and others - forever.”
Coley means that literally. Lands acquired in the restoration program are protected by deeds that specify they cannot be sold, as well as by federal oversight. “They can’t be sold,” Coley said, “even if a state gets in a budget pinch.”
A governor or treasurer who wants to sidestep the program’s restrictions and sell lands acquired with restoration money, said Coley, will be disappointed. A state that sells land purchased with hunting and fishing license revenue can be declared in diversion by the director of the Service. That state will be prohibited from participating in the wildlife restoration program — blackballed, in effect.
If a state sells land acquired with restoration funds without Service authorization, it will be required to replace the property with another parcel. This may be more difficult than it appears. The replacement tract must have been bought with non-federal funds, and it has to serve the same purpose as the land that was sold. And this: The replacement must be of equal size and monetary value as the original tract.
The program works well, said Marilyn Lawal, a supervisory fish and wildlife biologist in the sports fisheries division. She and Coley work closely together.
We have to make sure everything is done in perpetuity,” she said. “We’re doing this to protect the money and the purpose (the land) was purchased under. That’s the secret of this program … for over 80 years.”
‘Tons’ of land
The name is a misnomer. Texas Plantation is located in the flat, fertile reaches of Tyrrell County, North Carolina, not far from the coast. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission bought the 1,467-acre tract five years ago. It used $1.38 million in federal restoration funds, matching that with $462,500 from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses.
State officials were delighted with the acquisition. The Texas Plantation teems with wildlife, waterfowl and varieties of fish. As a wetland, it’s invaluable. As a hunting and wildlife-viewing resource, it’s a crowd favorite. As a habitat, it’s a biologist’s delight: the Texas Plantation supports 30 priority species — 13 of them listed on North Carolina’s threatened/endangered list.
The Texas Plantation is a success story, said Jessie Birckhead, who oversees land acquisition for the commission. In recent years, the agency has “added tons” of land to its wildlife management areas, she said.
Since more than 80 percent of land in North Carolina is privately owned, she said, getting lands for public use and species protection is important.
“We’ve got to make sure that people have a place to get outside and enjoy,” said Birckhead, who got involved in land acquisition while working at The Nature Conservancy.
Working with others to get new lands, said Birckhead, lets her know that the work has ramifications now and in the future. “It’s making sure future generations have these acquisitions as a resource,” she said.
Alabama officials offer a similar story. In recent years, Alabama conservationists have turned their attention to “underserved areas,” said Chris Smith, the assistant chief of the wildlife section of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
They’ve used state money to match federal funds, buying smaller tracts in west-central and southwest Alabama. They’ve bought lands comprising 5,000 or 6,000 acres — tracts a fraction of the size of other wildlife management areas, which can reach 60,000 acres. Smith called them “special opportunity areas.”
In the west-central part of the state, for example, the department has added 16,000 acres in smaller tracts, then started a lottery for hunting licenses. “It was a big hit,” he said.
“No doubt, we think this is a big success, and a success in the eyes of our users,” he said.
Arkansas has been another longtime partner in public-land purchases. Since 1948, when the state established its first wildlife management area, it has created 338,000 acres where nature thrives.
Arkansas sportsmen and sportswomen have put the sites to good use, said Matthew Warriner, chief of wildlife management division of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
“It’s definitely really popular,” Warriner said.
Especially popular: bottomland hardwood forests that abound with deer — “big deer,” Warriner added.
Working with the federal-state match program, the commission recently acquired 1,500 acres that has been folded into Frog Bayou WMA. With the addition, the area exceeds 2,200 acres.
Hunters who buy licenses may not realize the return they’re getting on their investments, Warriner added.
“Gosh, the hunters really don’t know the importance of what they’re doing (buying licenses) in terms of paying for wildlife management,” he said. “It’s really valuable.”
Mark Davis, Public Affairs Specialist
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