Who should pay for conservation?
Traditional sources of funding are dwindling, and some believe park visitors should step up.
Marcia Brownlee took up hunting in her 30s after years of hiking and camping on public lands. Stalking prey opened her eyes to the convoluted patchwork of private and public lands that humans and animals navigate in the Western U.S. It also gave her a greater financial stake in wildlife conservation. Brownlee heads the National Wildlife Federation’s Artemis Initiative, which encourages women to hunt and fish. These days, she spends a couple hundred dollars a year on license fees.
In 2018, Brownlee found herself at a crossroads of conservation funding during a trip to Montana’s Tenderfoot Creek, a tributary to the Smith River east of the Rocky Mountains, about halfway between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. Access to the land she was hunting on was purchased from private owners with Land and Water Conservation Fund money from oil and gas royalties. Meanwhile, the money hunters like Brownlee spend on licenses and equipment funded more than half of the annual budgets of state wildlife agencies, according to a 2014–2015 survey.
Conservation funding in the U.S. depends on money from hunting, fishing and fossil fuels to pay for projects like wetland restoration and land purchases that improve public access. Now, however, that funding is becoming unreliable. Oil and gas development faces an uncertain future as the Biden administration halts federal leasing and mulls deeper reforms. Hunting participation has been on a downward slide for decades — a slide that briefly reversed in 2020 with the pandemic boosting hunting license sales and election year angst turbocharging firearms purchases. The fragility of the current funding model has Western states and conservationists seeking new revenue sources.