Sunday, June 10, 2012

New Pa. Law May Give The Fish & Boat Commission More Financial Control

By John Hayes / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In April, John Arway was crossing his fingers. The executive director of the state Fish and Boat Commission was waiting to see if a 20 percent increase in fishing license sales (compared to figures from the same period in 2011) was a real reflection of licenses sold or a statistical anomaly caused by anglers buying licenses early to fish Early Season Trout-Stocked Waters during the warm weeks of late winter.

With bass season opening June 16, Pennsylvania fishing license

sales are up, continuing a trend that started in the spring.

Above, Fish and Boat Commission executive director John Arway

with a nice largemouth
A 20 percent increase in license sales would add more than $3 million to the agency's coffers, and a new law passed last week could help the agency to further boost license sales.

Sales reports have been consistently good since April. Through June 4, anglers purchased 683,031 licenses, or 67,389 more than at the same time last year. A few days later, Arway said sales and fees were up 16 percent.

Ca-ching! That's about $3.3 million in revenue increases for a small state agency funded almost entirely by the anglers who use its services. "That's the good news," said Arway, who grew up in North Huntingdon and Cranberry. "The bad news is expenses are up and almost all other revenues are down."

Last year, Arway spent about $52 million of the agency's $60 million annual budget, holding the rest in reserve for a rainy day. About 80 percent of the budget is spent on personnel.
About 67 percent of Fish and Boat's revenue is raised through license and permit fees. No money for fisheries management is routed from the state's general fund.

Additional funding comes from a federal excise tax on fishing-related equipment and motor fuel sales (see Scott Shalaway's "Wildlife" column). Arway said the state's Dingell-Johnson Act funding is down $1.3 million compared to last year, and increased apportionment due to 2012's increased license sales won't be seen until 2013.

Fish and Boat makes money from leases on timber and mineral rights, including Marcellus Shale gas, on agency-owned properties. But Arway said it's a proverbial drop in the bucket.
"We don't have as much property as the Game Commission," he said. "We have 44,000 acres, mostly boat launches and properties around lakes. I think we've had one sale of timber. We're making efforts to market shale gas on some of our properties, but it's not anywhere near the extraction phase. We have not withdrawn any gas. There have been no royalty payments yet."

Arway said the agency can't rely on income from resource leases to meet its wildlife management expenses. "It was estimated that if we owned all the mineral rights on our properties -- and we're not sure if we own them -- we'd bring in over $50 million in 20 years," he said. "But that's not nearly enough to meet our obligations. We have a $120 million need just to fix our high-hazard dams that have been closed."

The 16 Fish and Boat-managed dams closed by the state Department of Environmental Protection include seven in Western Pennsylvania. A state law passed this year awards $1 million to each of the Pennsylvania's wildlife management agencies to pay for reviewing Marcellus Shale environmental impact permits.

The PFBC reviewed about 5,000 well permit requests last year. Arway said that money is expected to arrive at the agency in September. "That's fine, but our costs go up every day," he said. "I'm cautiously optimistic."

Financial relief could be in sight. Last week the state House of Representatives passed HB 1049, "a monumental piece of legislation," in Arway's words, that would allow the state's wildlife agencies more leeway in licensing.

If approved by Gov. Tom Corbett, Fish and Boat would be permitted to experiment with multi-year fishing license configurations, providing the cost is not higher for licenses sold in single-year units.

"One out of four anglers buys a fishing license once every five years," said Arway. "As a result of the legislation that passed [June 6], the legislature allows us to try multi-year licenses, such as a three-year license or a five-year license." Arway said more than 25 percent of the state Department of Transportation's licenses are sold in multi-year units.
Fish and Boat currently gives boaters the option of buying two-year registrations. Few American states give that level of flexibility to their wildlife managers.

"We're [eager] for the governor to sign it. Then we need to evaluate the pricing and how that would work," said Arway. "It really gives us the opportunity to manage our business on our own, more so than we have done in the past."

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