Taxation for conservation – how American hunters funded a success story

There are two certainties in life: death and taxes. Both topics are typically avoided. But there is one tax that our fellow American hunters openly and willingly talk about – and it’s an option many wildlife experts recommend Australia adopts for the future of our unique native fauna and flora.

The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, commonly known as the Pittman-Robertson Act (P-R) after its co-sponsors, Senator Key Pittman and Congressman Absalom Robertson, has been praised for restoring and preserving America’s wildlife for the past 80 years. Today, it is credited for a wealth of success: from revitalising native animal populations to protecting habitats and establishing hunting lands to supporting hunter education programs, just to name a few.

According to America’s peak firearms trade group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), this tax has raised a mammoth $US11 billion since its inception. In 2016, it raked in $US780 million. All money has purely been spent on conservation.

The tax itself is surprisingly simple: a federal tax of 11 per cent is collected from the sales of firearms, ammunition and archery equipment, similar to Australia’s Goods and Services Tax (GST). Handguns are taxed at 10 per cent. But instead of the money disappearing into government coffers, the funds are subject to legislation that specifies it must be spent on wildlife management and public hunting lands.

According to the NSSF, the tax is collected directly from the manufacturers by the United States Department of the Treasury and then distributed to the 50 states. The funds are managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). To calculate how much each state receives, a specific formula, including taking into account the state’s total land area and the number of licensed hunters, is applied.

The NSSF explains how the formula requires the money to be spent on enhanced hunter education programs, public target ranges and for projects that require cooperation among the states. It is clearly legislated that the states must chip in some of their own funds, usually at least 25 per cent of a project’s cost. The Federal Government, and the states, have and still recognise the importance of spending this money on areas directly relevant to how the funds were raised – in this case, by American hunters.

Australia does not have a similar federal scheme. Some states do allocate funds from hunting permits or licences to conservation activities. South Australia, for example, redirects money from duck and quail hunting permits into its Wildlife Conservation Fund, not general government revenue. This fund supports research programs and explores conservation management options in SA.

Adopting a federal scheme in Australia is one that American wildlife experts and facilitators of the P-R openly encourage. Former USFWS state director, Don MacLauchlan, now at the Americas Fur Resource Council, described the P-R, and the fisheries equivalent Dingell-Johnson Act, as “world-class success stories”. “Much has been written about them and we are very proud of them,” he said.

The demise of many species, such as whitetail deer, turkeys and wood ducks, coupled with dire economic conditions, led to a grassroots movement by hunters in the 1930s to mount a charge for change. “In pre-Pittman-Robertson America there were no wildlife schools, as we know them today, there was virtually no fish and wildlife research and there was very little ‘scientific’ wildlife management,” Don explained. “This all happened because hunters and anglers demanded it.”​

Don also credited the firearms industry for its role in the scheme’s success, saying: “It also can be a plus for the manufacturers which can share credit for our programs. When our program was enacted it enjoyed industry-wide support.” He pointed to a range of positive factors, from allowing states to control the management of the money; protecting funds from diversion through audits; a close working relationship between the state and federal governments; and the understanding that the states “are accountable to the hunters and anglers who pay the tax”, as the manufacturers inevitably pass the tax on to consumers.

“There has been a continuing ethic among the state managers for 70 years to hold themselves accountable to the hunters and anglers,” said Don. “Accountability to the payers is very important. Collectively, several states have worked to make their hunters and anglers feel possessive about these funds.”

Thomas Decker, from the USFWS Federal Aid Regional Office, echoed Don’s sentiments. “In a survey of more than 400 fish and wildlife professionals at the 2015 North American Wildlife Conference, they listed this funding law as the most significant piece of legislation in the past 100 years, for the conservation of wildlife in our country.”

He also pointed to the structure of the scheme as another reason for its success, stressing that “it is not a boom or bust grant program”. “They (the funds) are calculated using a very specific apportionment formula and are appropriated automatically. This is different than annual appropriations that are appointed annually at the discretion of the US Congress. Thus, these funds are allocated to the states, even if the rest of the government shuts down.”

For America’s peak duck hunting organisation, the Delta Waterfowl Foundation, the P-R aids in its efforts to secure the future of ducks and waterfowl in North America. John Devney, vice president of US Policy for the foundation, said the P-R has provided public access, improved habitats, funded wildlife surveys and aided in vital research. “P-R is among the most laudable conservation success stories in the US because it ensures that the excise tax on arms, ammo and other gets put back into wildlife conservation via a long established partnership with the USFWS and the states,” he said.

In what can be described as the most successful conservation tax in the world, the P-R is a shining example of how governments, hunters and the firearms industry can work together to conserve and protect wildlife. Australian legislators can certainly rely on our nation’s true conservationists, the Australian hunters, to be willing contributors if a similar scheme was adopted here.

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