Wondering if non-residents should pay more to hunt, fish
By Walt Young
For my first column of 2022, my theme will be a rhetorical question that occurred to me earlier in 2021 in what was another bizarre year.
By definition, a rhetorical question is one that is posed to produce thought regarding a subject and does not require an answer. And although the topic of the question is probably somewhat controversial, it is to my intention to provoke letters or emails about it.
For that reason, I will offer the two most obvious answers before I reveal the question. They are: “It’s all about the money” and “Because they can.”
And the question is, “Why do we charge nonresidents so much more for hunting and fishing licenses?” By “we” I mean all the other states in general, not just Pennsylvania because every other state charges nonresidents more for any given license or permit than its residents pay. Some states even employ reciprocal pricing for nonresidents, meaning you will be charged whatever your home state charges nonresidents for the hunting or fishing license or permit you want. Such provincialism seems overly silly in the third decade of the twenty-first century. After all, I don’t believe any state charges a higher rate of sales tax to folks who make purchases outside their home state. And no store or other business would think of charging out-of-state customers extra for any of the goods or services they offer; they will gladly accept payment from all customers at prevailing rates without discrimination.
I realize that the justification for upcharging nonresidents for hunting or fishing privileges goes back many generations to when the first hunting and fishing licenses were established. The general attitude among hunters and anglers back then was undoubtedly, “We don’t want those darn out-of-staters coming in here and getting all ‘our’ fish and game.” Because it probably wasn’t practical, or maybe even not legal, to prohibit nonresidents from hunting or fishing, the next best thing was to make the darn out-of-staters pay dearly to come here to get “our” deer, turkeys, pheasants, trout, bass or whatever. The state fish and game agencies, of course, were more than willing to impose the heavy nonresident fees on hunting and fishing licenses because every bureaucracy always considers more money coming its way to be a good thing. And more to the point, the agencies levied the charges simply because they could do so. After all, if you want a hunting or fishing license, you must buy it from them. You can’t shop around for a better deal.
So way back in the day, how much of a deterrent was the higher fees in keeping down the numbers of out-of-state hunters and anglers? And more important, did making fewer nonresident sportsmen and women pay more to hunt and fish have any positive effect on conservation? Regardless of what the impacts were throughout most of the twentieth century, imposing higher fees on nonresidents seems counterproductive at the present time. That is especially true here in Pennsylvania where our Fish and Boat Commission and Game Commission receive no general state tax revenue. Both agencies are funded almost entirely from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. Hunters and anglers, therefore, pay the bill for fish and wildlife conservation in Pennsylvania.
The problem with that model is the operating costs of our fish and game agencies continue to go up each year while the numbers of folks buying hunting and fishing licenses have experienced a steady decline over the past 30 years. Numbers of nonresident hunting and fishing licenses have declined as much or even more than resident licenses. This shrinking customer base is cause for concern. As fewer persons choose to hunt or fish, there will come a time when the revenue from license sales is no longer sustainable to pay for the management and conservation of so many precious resources. I’ll save the discussion regarding the need to restructure our fish and game agencies for the twenty-first century for another time.
I’ve often seen statistics citing that hunting and fishing adds from hundreds of millions to several billion dollars to the economy of Pennsylvania every year. I’m sure that would rank the outdoor sports as one of the major industries in the state. Tourism is another important industry in Pennsylvania. From the state and regional level down to individual counties and municipalities, promoting tourism is another vital part of our economy. The hunting and fishing opportunities available at any given location are always given plenty of emphasis when courting potential visitors. Lower license fees could help attract more visiting hunter and anglers.
I know we all like having a piece of water or a patch of woods all to ourselves, and there always seems to be a few of those wonderful days each season.
But it is also vital that we have significant numbers of hunters and anglers, not only to provide revenue from license sales, but also to represent a strong force for the future of conservation of so many worthwhile resources for the benefit and enjoyment of all citizens.