As we gnash our teeth and rail at the mismanagement of our world, we need to take a few long moments to unclench our jaws and celebrate our successes. One in particular, which is going unmentioned in the debates over new gun laws and especially in the national discussion of hunting, is the Pittman-Robertson Act and the cash that is flowing from it like a high tide of honey into our federal and state wildlife coffers.
I am still shocked when I go into the Scheels in Great Falls and find the shelves empty of ammunition, and the gun cabinet with nothing in it but brackets, but it is a comfort to know that we have a booming economy in guns and ammo, and that, because of the Pittman-Robertson Act, we have a record-shattering amount of money available to support wildlife, habitat, and the shooting and archery sports. The rush on guns and ammo produced $522,552,011 in Pittman-Robertson money in fiscal year 2013 alone. At a time of record federal deficits, slashed budgets and ideologically inspired attacks on conservation, the Act has never seemed so important, or so visionary.
I thought most people in the hunting and fishing world knew about the P-R, but I was wrong. I called the gun counter at a major outdoor retailer to ask if the Pittman-Robertson taxes applied to reloading equipment, bullets, shot, powder and primers (they don’t), and the guy who answered the phone–who was otherwise friendly and knowledgeable about his merchandise–had never heard of the Pittman-Robertson Act. I don’t fault him for not knowing. We have done a poor job, even amongst ourselves and our children, of explaining just how irreplaceable we are to American wildlife and habitat. So, for the good guy at the gun counter, and everybody else, including me, here’s the story of the most important single source of funding for fish and wildlife in the history of mankind:
The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, usually called the Pittman-Robertson Act after its sponsors, Senator Key Pittman of Nevada and Virginia’s Representative Absalom Willis Robertson, is an 11 percent excise tax on firearms and ammunition. The tax already existed in 1937, but sportsmen from all over the U.S., faced with the dire conditions of fish and wildlife in the 1930s (it is said that the lowest point for wildlife populations in our country was reached around 1934), pressured Congress to earmark that money for restoration and conservation projects, for wildlife research and habitat protection. The P-R Act was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937.
The money collected goes to the U.S. Department of Interior, and is passed out to the states according to a formula that counts how many hunting licenses are sold there and how large the state is. State fish and wildlife agencies apply for the money, and usually provide 25 percent or more of their own matching funds drawn from hunting license sales.
The success of the P-R led to its expansion in 1970 to handguns (which are taxed at 10 percent) and to archery equipment (taxed like long arms at 11 percent) and allowed some of the money to be used not just for wildlife restoration but for hunter education and shooting ranges.
In 1950, Congress passed the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act (known as the Dingell-Johnson Act, or D-J) created a tax on boats, boating fuel and fishing equipment that has built, year after year into one of the great conservation success stories of the planet. This year states will share $359,871,868 for everything for fishing access sites to hatcheries and fishery surveys. (Representative John Dingell of Michigan, who was co-sponsor of the bill, is about to become the longest serving member of Congress in history. Dingell has both an A rating from the National Rifle Association and a 100 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters, which is a powerful antidote to cynicism. Another is the fact that, in 2000, when the Pittman-Robertson funds were raided by the Clinton administration for everything from outlandish dinner parties and trying to purchase the Palmyra Atoll in the South Pacific to funding anti-hunting groups, an outraged U.S. Rep. Don Young of Alaska led the successful charge to pass a law that kept the P-R and D-J funds directed to serve the sportsmen who fought for the act and paid the taxes.)
Taken together, P-R and D-J–our money, from our purchases, from buying a new Barbie fishing rod for your toddler to the wild rush on .223s, is going to bring in a mind-blowing $882 million for us this year. These visionary excise taxes are based on the very basic principles of economic growth: money spent on wildlife and fisheries restoration results in more wildlife and fish, which allows for more hunters and fishermen, who buy more boats and fuel and ammo and guns and tackle, which provides more money for improving water quality and restoring or protecting habitat, which results in more game and fish… and so on to a kind of beautiful perpetual motion creation, teeming with happy outdoorspeople, leaping fish, thundering herds and skies dark with waterfowl, cerulean buntings and plovers.
The return on investment, the sheer economic boom, has been extraordinary, and it includes the billions of dollars spent by wildlife watchers, hikers, boaters, and all other non-hunters and non-fishermen who enjoy the clean water, abundant wildlife and birds and open spaces that the P-R and D-J funds buy for them. See just a few of the successful projects funded by these taxes here, and a simple breakdown of the PR’s history and application.
I doubt that many of the anti-gun people, or even many non-hunting and fishing environmentalists, know very much about the miracles performed by state wildlife and fisheries agents with all of this money, or how they get it, or why, or from whom. They just assume that we have all of this open space and wildlife and clean water by divine right, just as children living at home with good parents believe that there will always be a sound roof over their heads and healthy food on the table, never seeing the toil and risk and sweat that it takes to win those essentials for them. It is up to us to explain it to our fellow citizens, not to make our case for the Second Amendment–that case has long ago been made, by the Constitution–but to broaden understanding, to make allies, to celebrate the wisdom of those who recognized our responsibility to steward and restore our greatest natural resources, and had the genius to figure out how to pay for it. It was us–hunters and fishermen–who made this happen. We’re still doing it. Everybody should understand that.