In lieu of the recent presidential election, America has been left split and in battle over key issues of American life. No matter the issue, both the left and the right cling to the same ‘ace up there heir sleeve’ argument: “American freedom is in jeopardy.”
While some of these issues are worthy of long winded debates and reformed legislation, paying to hunt and fish is not one of them. The money sportsmen and women pay for their harvesting privileges is not an infringement on American freedom rather it is an insurance for continued freedom. Usually I wouldn’t take the time to make an argument for such a self-explanatory concept, but a recent conversation and a series of internet memes has forced my hand.
While perusing his daily Facebook feed, a good buddy of mine came across a thought provoking post which lit a fire within him. His freedom was at stake, and he would be damned if he would continue his day without spreading the word:
“I read this post, it was about how our freedom has been slowly chipped away since the creation of our country! The government takes more than their share. Think about it. We have to pay income taxes, we have to pay to fish, we even have to pay to hunt!”
It’s true, we do pay. In fact, we pay for yearly licenses, tags for every species we hunt, and pay big money to enter lotteries for hunts we may never win in a lifetime. That’s not to mention waterfowl stamps, HIP numbers, and fishing fees. Two hundred years ago, there were no such regulations. Daniel Boone never paid a cent to hunt the buffalo herds he found when he crossed the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. My great-great-great grandfather did not hand over a nickel to hunt the whitetail deer and waterfowl he found in Cape May County, New Jersey. So why, must we in America, land of the free, pay for such intrinsic luxuries?
Let me start off by saying what I told my buddy: the payment serves a purpose. Yeah, two-hundred years ago hunters and anglers did not have to pay a cent to enjoy America’s wildlands, but you would be a fool to think they lived in more prolific and prosperous times.
After sailing the Atlantic Ocean from Europe, American settlers were hungry: both for food and wealth. The common currency of the time was in the form of furs, and America, in its virgin state, was in large supply. Settlers pushed west as they trapped beaver, hunted whitetails (for which one hide became synonymous with one unit of currency, hence the ‘buck’) and slaughtered buffalo whose fur was thick and abundant. What ensued was somewhat of a horror story. By the turn of the 20th century, beaver were virtually decimated, whitetail deer became scarce along the Atlantic Coast, and the buffalo that once carpeted the American prairie found itself on a one way track to the history books as a conservation disaster.
The Americans of pre-19th century were free to do as they pleased along their path to manifest destiny, at the price of decimating their natural resources along the way. It was not long until visionaries such as Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau realized this was a price too heavy. They started an environmental movement of their own right, which could not take legislative power until Teddy Roosevelt came into office in 1901. Along with his revolutionizing view of protecting pristine wild lands through hunting and fishing money, and the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 which implemented an excise tax on firearms and ammunition and directed proceeds towards conservation efforts, the life of the American hunter was changed forever.
No longer could ambitious woodsmen run willy-nilly through the woods shooting whatever they want, and no longer could the trout dreaming fisherman hop in a stream and fill a wheel barrow with dead fish. There were now rules and regulations. There were now access fees and protected areas, tags you had to pay for and steep fines if you did not abide by the rules. The days of Jim Bridger getting his fill on Wyoming beaver were done, and Daniel Boone would surely shy away from the society taking hold in the early 1900’s.
If they could only see what all this money generated, however, they would not be so naïve. Today we enjoy the luxuries of having more whitetail deer than at the time of European contact. Turkey are now on the front doorsteps of most American abodes come spring time, when in the early 1900’s they were decimated from most of their native range. Beaver, once scarce and eliminated from nearly every pond in the east, have rebounded so well that they have even become a nuisance in some areas.
There would be no hunting and fishing in the 20th and 21st centuries had it not been for the proceeds accumulated by hunting and fishing paid expenses. State fish and wildlife agencies use this money to implement habitat management programs, reintroduction efforts, pay wildlife biologists, and enforce laws through paying conservation officers. Wyoming Game and Fish, in a state notable not only for its abundance of terrestrial game but also its ecologically crucial trout and salmon populations, depends on license fees and excise taxes from the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 for over 80% of its funding. Pennsylvania Game Commission, who manages one of the only remaining elk herds in eastern American, relies on hunting license sales solely for over 40% of their funding. It would not be farfetched to say that we live in the prime time for hunting and fishing in America. It would be even easier to say that it is because we pay for it.
“That’s all well and good, but at what price, your freedom? The government is still making you pay to hunt and fish,” exclaims my buddy as he shows me this crudely ignorant internet meme.
But what he does not understand is that wildlife held in the public trust is freedom. Having the opportunity to gather food from the wild and relieving oneself of dependency on farms and supermarkets is freedom. We fund the streams we angle and the woods we hunt. We pay for the drumming log where the spring ruffed grouse courts and the river bed where the catfish hunts. I like to think that paying to hunt and fish is an insurance on our freedom, a guarantee that wildlife will not be decimated like 19th century America. The freedom we have as far as enjoying wildlands is what makes America the greatest country on earth, and I’ll gladly pay for it.