DENVER – Hikers, bikers, rafters and everyone else who enjoys Colorado’s wild areas and the animals that inhabit them may be asked in the future to put their money where their recreation is.
House Bill 1321, which would raise fees to sustain Colorado’s Division Parks and Wildlife, would task the division with creating a report on the use of its lands by “non-consumptive users,” and how they can contribute to its future. Non-consumptive users is a catch-all term for individuals who do not directly impact the land through hunting, fishing or grazing.
The bill could lead to a re-envisioning of the North American model of wildlife conservation.
David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited, said the model is based on the foundation that wildlife is a public resource and its users should pay for the management of that resource. For decades this has meant that state wildlife agencies, such as CPW, have been funded through licensing fees and excise taxes on equipment such as firearms, ammunition and fishing tackle.
“The reality is that for many years, in all states, that a lot of the parks and wildlife work has been funded by hunters and anglers,” said Douglas Vilsack, legislative liaison for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
The study required under HB 1321 could expand the model to include those who use the state wildlife resource without shooting or hooking it.
What form that would take is up in the air as the study is not underway and has a Dec. 31, 2018 deadline.
“We’re looking way out into the future on this and starting the conversation,” said Joe Lewandowski, CPW spokesman in Durango.
Whatever form non-consumptive users contributions takes it would geared at individuals who enjoy state wildlife areas and other CPW lands outside of the state parks, which visitors already pay to enjoy, Lewandowski said.
Ideas include a special sales tax on outdoor recreational equipment or a vehicle licensing fee.
Another idea is a sales tax increase such as those adopted by Arkansas and Missouri in 1996 and 1976, respectively. Both of these states have approved a one-eighth a cent sales tax increase to fund conservation efforts.
In Missouri, the tax accounts for roughly 60 percent of its Department of Conservation’s funding and generates more than $100 million annually.
A sales tax increase must be approved by Colorado voters.
Vilsack said a solution to CPWs funding issues must be obtainable and economically viable. “You can’t just sit somebody in a chair at the edge of every bike trail. It has to be a cost effective way of getting people involved.”
Another proposal is to expand the ability for local volunteer groups to contribute to the maintenance of the lands.
Mary Monroe Brown, executive director of Trails 2000, said she would favor of something along those lines, but understands the complications because of the nature of the roughly 11,000 acres of CPW lands in La Plata County.
Most of the land is state wildlife area that is dedicated as habitats for wildlife and hunting, and have limited public use. As they do not have a multi-use mandate, there isn’t a clear avenue for volunteer contributions to their management.
Brown said to expand volunteer effort, CPW would have to reevaluate the designations and that could expand recreational opportunities.
But activity such as developing trails would come at the expense of the wildlife habitat, and is not something CPW is considering, Lewandowski said.
Still, increased volunteer trail maintenance could work in some areas, and is being considered by the Department of Agriculture after a bill was signed in 2016 by former President Barack Obama that requires it to evaluate how to increase volunteer contributions on National Forest lands.
Included in the federal evaluation is a requirement to “address the barriers to increased volunteerism and partnerships,” which is a model Brown thinks CPW should consider.
“As budgets are shrinking, volunteers need to contribute more,” she said.
The lack of recreational opportunities in the areas around Durango is a deterrent for some to contribute to their sustainability, Lewandowski said. “People pay for what they use.”
But CPW’s charge doesn’t stop at the borders of its lands as the wildlife moves freely between state land and federal land, where most hunting occurs.
Hunters have expressed frustration with recreational users impacting the land they believe they are funding through the fees placed on tags and licenses.
That is where the study of how non-consumptive uses can contribute in HB 1321 comes in, Vilsack said. “They, just like the hunters and anglers, want to pay so we can provide them good mountain biking trails or good hiking opportunities.”
Nickum said Colorado Trout Unlimited is philosophically in support of non-consumptive users contributing to the sustainability of CPW.
“I think we need to give that opportunity to audiences like that,” he said.
He added that this would not be the first time there have been attempts to boost contributions from those who don’t hunt or fish.
An example is the $10 Habitat Stamps, which are required with the purchase of hunting and fishing licenses, but getting others to buy them fell short of the goal.
“That didn’t work out tremendously well just because it was a voluntary program and people didn’t really understand that they should go buy a habitat stamp,” Vilsack said.
The study required in HB 1321, and any new contributions, is reliant on the success of the measure, which was passed by the state House of Representatives last week and is pending a hearing Thursday in the Senate, Vilsack said. The failure of the legislation could derail any movement on non-consumptive user contributions.
“We have other priorities in terms of trying to keep the lights on if we really don’t get this funding,” he said.