Anglers and boaters may face new fees to fund their sports

Posted on: January 25, 2018 | Bob Frye | Comments

So maybe the cuts won’t have to be as deep as expected.

That’s the hope anyway.

Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commissioners – unable to convince state lawmakers to increase fishing license fees since 2005 – are looking at ways they can raise money on their own, with an eye toward postponing $2 million in looming budget cuts.

There are several options.

Commission staff recently held a “brainstorming” session on how to increase revenues, said Brian Barner, deputy executive director for the agency.

Forty-six ideas were identified. Thirty-three call for raising existing fees, such as the cost to moor a boat at Walnut Creek Marina in Erie or subscribe to the agency’s magazine, Pennsylvania Angler & Boater. Thirteen others involve creating new fees.

Some are off the table already, Barner said, as they would require legislation.

Others, though are “operational” or “regulatory,” meaning they could be enacted by the commission’s executive director or board, respectively.

One involves launch permits.

Owners of canoes and kayaks do not need to register their craft. They do, however, need to buy a launch permit to use a commission-owned lake or launch or go on a state park lake.

Those permits were first created in 1991. The prices set then — $10 for one year or $18 for two — have never changed since.

The commission makes about $1.7 million annually on permit sales now. That could increase to more than $2.5 million annually, according to projections Barner offered.

They’re based on higher prices and growing participation.

Launch permit sales have climbed consistently for years, said Bernie Matscavage, director of the commission’s bureau of administration. They topped 100,000 for the first time ever in 2017.

Commission president Rocco Ali said he favors taking advantage of that/

“This is an area that’s exploding, and we’re missing the boat, so to speak,” Ali said.

It’s uncertain yet what new prices might be, though. The commission can’t charge more than the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which sells its own version.

That agency is taking a “hard look” at increasing fees, said spokesman Terry Brady. No decisions have yet been made, he said.

The department did propose raising launch permit fees previously, in December of 2009. The new prices were to have been $12 for one year or $22 for two. They were to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2010.

The department never put that into effect, but could do so at any time without further public comment, said a spokesman. If the price were to go even higher, that would require public notice first.

As for creating new fees of permits, that’s where things get most interesting.

Some could be voluntary. The commission could, staff said, look into selling permits specifically to support musky or wild trout management. A voluntary habitat/waterways conservation permit is another idea.

Other new fees could be mandatory.

Among the possibilities put forward are requiring permits to: fish Keystone Select trout waters; hunt, hike or watch birds on commission properties; or park on commission lands.

The commission could conceivably offer anglers willing to pay more a few additional opportunities, staff said. Fishermen could, perhaps, buy a permit allowing them to keep three times the daily creel limit on some fish, or use more rods or hooks than is currently permitted.

No decisions on which ideas to pursue have been made yet. Commissioners are to individually identify their top five or eight priorities, then give those to Ali. He’ll relay them to executive director John Arway.

Most of the suggestions are “doable,” said commissioner Bill Brock of Elk County. Some are better than others, though, he added.

He believes any enacted should be phased in.

“Anything we do, I think we have to do in small increments, with prices going up gradually, and compound that over time. That’s always more palatable to the customer than one big jump,” Brock said.

The board needs to pick a few ideas and act on them soon, though, said commissioner B.J. Small of Cumberland County.

In September, commissioners directed Arway to cut $2 million from the agency budget starting with the 2018-19 fiscal year. That begins July 1.

Arway’s plan for doing that involves closing the Oswayo and Union City fish hatcheries and stocking 240,000 fewer adult trout, among other things.

Commissioners, though, might be willing to reverse course a bit if, by spring, new revenues are on the horizon.

“I do think there could be some changes in the wind. I would anticipate we could see some changes there,” Small said.

That’s not to say no cuts in goods or services will be made, said commissioner Richard Lewis of Adams County. Short of getting a license fee increase, the commission is not going to be able to solve its financial shortcomings, he said. There will be consequences to that, he added.

But if the commission can come up with $1 million in “revenue enhancements,” perhaps it can make $1 million in cuts rather than $2 million, he said.

“I think that’s a compromise position and a balanced position,” Lewis said.

Lifetime licenses and trout stamps

This idea, perhaps, is a non-starter.

One fundraising possibility identified by Fish and Boat Commission staff is requiring all senior lifetime fishing license holders to buy an annual trout stamp.

That’s the rule already for anglers who bought their lifetime license after 2015. Those who purchased theirs before that date are exempt, however.

Several commissioners said they’re unsure they want to renege on that “contract.”

Commissioner Richard Kauffman of Berks County, for example, said that that idea “jumped out” for him as a potential negative.

“That’s one of the ones I’m going to have to take a long and hard look at,” Kauffman said.

Commission executive director John Arway expects more of the same from board members. They haven’t decided anything yet. But he doesn’t think this idea will survive when they do.

“Even though we put it on the list, my prediction is that it’s not going to be a high priority,” Arway said.

Potential repercussions are likely why.

Last year Pennsylvania Game Commissioners created a pheasant hunting permit. It’s required of all hunters — even lifetime hunting license holders – chasing stocked birds.

Their rationale was they need all pheasant hunters to help offset the cost of raising birds.

The move angered some, though, and even prompted legislation to exempt lifetime license holders. That hasn’t gone anywhere, and the permit remains.

But some within the Fish and Boat Commission don’t want to wage that war.

The agency is already dealing with angry lawmakers. Some took offense to the proposed cuts in trout stocking, and most specifically to the commission’s plan to direct those cuts specifically at the districts of lawmakers opposed to increasing fishing license fees.

That led to a bill limiting an executive director to serving eight years on the job. That would force Arway out by spring.

The bill passed the Senate in an unprecedented three days. It’s awaiting action in the House of Representatives.

Bob Frye is the everybodyadventures.com editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or bfrye@535mediallc.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.

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Bob Frye is a storyteller with a passion for all things outdoors. He hunts, he fishes, he hikes, he camps, he paddles, backpacks and snowshoes depending on the season. If he’s not an expert at anything, it’s because he’s passionate to try a little bit of everything.