“People thought we had been hiding something. We didn’t. We did a poor job of projecting.”
In those three short sentences, Michigan DNR Director Rebecca Humphries both explained the fallout the department has been enduring from its announced “find” of $10 million in operating capital and, in an effort to clarify the situation, identified what went wrong.
Speaking at the winter rendezvous of the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association in Baldwin recently, Humphries emphasized that the money wasn’t “found” at all and that what has been presented and perceived as a “windfall” or the product of some shady dealings was actually the result of effective belt-tightening and unforeseen increases in income.
She acknowledged that people have gotten angry over the issue and “want to take it out of our hide.”
“I think a lot of people were upset, frustrated, mad and felt letdown on the budget issue,” she said.
Humphries detailed what happened:
For the past two years, the DNR has done its best to stretch its funds as much as possible. Since the funds are constitutionally protected, whatever does not get used one year reverts to the Game & Fish Fund for use in later years.
“We try to have a $10 million fund balance,” said Humphries, “but we have been spending that down the last few years. We figured we’d spend it down to around $3.8 million in 2007.”
A few things caused that projection to go awry, however.
First, the department saved about $5 million because of various executive directives. Next, sales of hunting licenses increased.
“That caught us by surprise,” Humphries said. “We had projected a one to seven percent decline, but the numbers actually went up.”
She attributed the increase in hunting license sales “absolutely” to the recent lowering of the hunting age and added she’d like to see the age restriction removed entirely.
“Personally, I don’t think there should be a minimum age. I think parents are the best judges of when their children are ready.”
The third source of additional monies available to the DNR is the accrued interest the department received from cashing out some of the Game & Fish funds that had been invested in managed accounts.
When the information hit the news, however, said Humphries, “it was translated from our saying we’d be $8.5 million short to ‘finding’ $10 million. We can make it through this year and if we’re really careful with expenses can make it through 2009 without a license increase. Good thing, too, because I don’t think we’d get it.”
When it comes to the question of where the DNR will get funds to cover all the cuts the legislature has made to its allocations, Humphries said there are any number of proposals floating around Lansing, such as a special license plate or the plan from State Rep. Joel Sheltrown, D-West Branch, that “carves out” money for the DNR from the sales tax paid on sporting goods.
“I think any fees or any increases are going to be a tough sell, especially when this is an election year,” she said.
She did say she’d like to see a mechanism established that would grant the DNR or the Natural Resources Commission the authority to make “modest increases over the years” to keep up with inflation. That would avoid what she called the “sticker shock” of massive increases every 10 years or so.
She also hopes to “come up with a mechanism to fund programs over a broader base. It’s not fair for hunters, anglers, campers and timber resources” to be bearing the burden of paying for all DNR programs.
“I’d like to see something that gets at all users and people.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to get more people to pay for conservation if it’s not coming from the general fund. Michigan’s going to have to find out the solution for us.”
She said she’d favor “some kind of a carve-out or earmark,” money that is directed specifically toward the DNR.
Other topics Humphries addressed:
• The recently signed consent agreement regarding Indian treaty rights for hunting an inland fishing allows for modification of the system by which walleye allocations are calculated. The department and tribes will be working on that this spring.
“We’ll try to be as open and transparent as we can be. We’ll keep you informed,” Humphries said.
• While it’s doubtful, with the decrease in flexibility teachers have in the classroom, that an outdoors or nature curriculum will be established for Michigan, it’s going to take parents banding together and ” to speak up about the anti-hunting messages being delivered in classrooms.”
• This year’s fishing guide was produced by a private vendor at no expense to the state. In exchange for that consideration, the vendor was permitted to sell advertising.
One of the reasons the language in the guide is often so technical and confusing to common people is that the guide also has to function as a legal document in courts.
• Humphries said, “Our clientele is changing. If you don’t have an RV you don’t fit our state parks anymore. You can’t take your family out, put up your tent and light your Coleman lantern at a state park.
“There are other ways to get people into the parks with our cabins, yurts, mini-cabins and lodges.”
The DNR is seeking to “partner” with RV manufacturers that might want to place some of their products in state parks.
“Maybe we will have some RVs available for people to rent,” said Humphries.n