CONCORD — A slight hike in the rooms and meals tax, a $1 million increase in support from the state general fund and a mandatory registration fee for canoes and kayaks are among the recommendations to emerge from yet another study on the future of the Fish and Game Department.

The 12-member commission, comprised of lawmakers, agency personnel and stakeholders, has submitted its final report to the Legislature with this caveat: “It’s time for New Hampshire to realize what outdoor recreation means to the quality of life and the economy of this state.”

Underlying the report is a recurring theme. New Hampshire’s spectacular wildlife and outdoor resources are essential to the success of the state’s tourism industry, yet the funding for the agency charged with managing those resources does not reflect that reality.

As revenues from hunting licenses declines and demands on the agency increase, the self-reliant funding model has been stretched to the breaking point.

Since 2014 nearly $4.2 million has been allocated to Fish and Game from the state general fund to shore up its wobbly finances, with little likelihood that the agency will ever be fully self-funded again, absent some major changes.

This is not a new problem. The commission that recently wrapped up its work, chaired by outgoing Republican Sen. Kevin Avard of Nashua, is the third such group convened by the Legislature in the past four years.

Fish and Game study commissions in 2013 and 2014 issued reports that called for a new fee of $10 a year on non-motorized watercraft (motorboats already pay); and a thorough examination of whether the time has come to fund Fish and Game like other state agencies, through the state general fund.

The only thing to come from those commissions was a $10-a-year increase in hunting and fishing license fees that took effect in 2016, and yet another study commission in 2018.

Unlike the previous two commissions, Avard’s group was much larger and had representatives from all the stakeholder groups, including both “consumptive” users (hunters, trappers) and “non-consumptive” stakeholders (hikers, kayakers).

Funding ‘inadequate’

“The commission has learned the funding needed to support the department’s budget has not kept pace with the cost of services it provides,” writes Avard in the introduction to the commission report. “The commission believes steps must be taken in the near future to correct the budget issues that are constraining the department’s capacity to meet its mission.”

Those steps include:

• Leverage the rooms and meals tax. This recommendation includes an increase of one-eighth of 1 percent in the rooms and meals tax, now at 9 percent, with all the new money dedicated to Fish and Game.

Avard told commission members this was a “non-starter” with a Republican majority in the House and Senate, but now he is not so sure. “That was based on past history,” he said. “I don’t know what this new Legislature is going to do.”

The commission also recommends dedicating to Fish and Game the roughly $250,000 in rooms and meals taxes collected annually from the Appalachian Mountain Club for its huts and lodges.

The AMC does not pay the 9 percent tax on dinners and breakfasts it serves, which lawmakers should address, and direct the money to Fish and Game, according to the report.

• Get more federal money. Under this recommendation, the federal government would be billed for all the work of conservation officers patrolling the White Mountain National Forest and for rescues on the federal lands, which account for nearly 50 percent of all hiker rescues in the state.

“It is estimated these annual costs come close to $150,000 and need to be addressed now,” the report states.

• Get enforcement out of the courts. A majority of commission members would like to see Fish and Game conduct its own administrative hearings on violations and collect the fines, rather than see much of the money go into the court system. Off Highway Recreational Vehicle violations could be a particularly lucrative source of revenue.

“This would also lessen the burden on our court system and is already being done by the Department of Safety with success,” according to the report.

The hearings would be conducted by a hearings officer and, according to another recommendation, the department would obtain authority from the legislature to coordinate with the DMV and suspend a driver’s license as a penalty for non-payment. “It’s called holding a big stick,” said Avard.

Spreading the burden

• Get kayak and canoe owners to pay up. The fact that motorboat owners have to pay a license to fund the public boat launches and marine enforcement while canoe and kayak owners do not, seems unfair to many commission members, who noted, “the department maintains many car-top access sites that are only accessible to canoes and kayaks, but are paid for by a fee assessed only to motorboat owners when they register.”

The idea of a registration fee on canoes and kayaks launched from public launches has been defeated in the past as a new tax or fee.

Another option suggested in the report is a voluntary boat decal for non-power boats and a Wildlife Conservation Stamp for license plates.

“This fund could easily surpass the Hike Safe Card revenues and provide a mechanism for promoting participation by the under-represented, non-consumptive users,” according to the report.

Another alternative would be to create a Boat Safe Card similar to the Hike Safe Card.

• Get more money from the state. The commission called for an increase of $1 million a year in state appropriations to Fish and Game from the general fund. Since 2014, annual appropriations have ranged from $890,000 to $600,000.

The commission would also like to see the state through its general fund pay the retirement benefits of Fish and Game conservation officers, as it does for other state employees.

Whether any of these recommendations are adopted depends on the incoming legislature. Although signed by all 12 commission members, the report is not a unanimous prescription for change.

“I left it so everyone could have their voice,” said Avard. “It doesn’t necessarily mean we all agree on every aspect. That’s an impossibility.”

Jim Morse is president of the N.H. Wildlife Federation, which describes itself as the “leading advocate for the promotion and protection of hunting, fishing and trapping.”

He served on the commission and says his group supports most of the recommendations.

Opposition voices

One group that does not agree with the commission’s approach is Voices of Wildlife in New Hampshire, which had hoped for a change in the composition of the Fish and Game Commission to better represent passive users of wildlife resources.

“The commission was supposed to make recommendations to improve management, the department’s name and organizational and structural improvements, not just revenue,” says Linda Dionne, president of VOW-NH. “We are not impressed with the recommendations of the commission as they missed the mark in numerous ways.”

That group supported changing the department’s name as recommended by in a 2008 legislative audit to something like Department of Wildlife, and making the Fish and Game Commission an advisory body. That would put policy decisions in the hands of the professional staff.

“The study commission became the voice of Fish and Game when it asked for all sorts of funding from the general public without offering to make changes that truly welcome participation by the general public and those who enjoy only non-consumptive activities related to wildlife,” said Dionne.

“It is time for the executive branch to step in and change the governance of NHFG to bring this state agency into the 21st century as an agency that’s no longer under the thumb of the hunting lobbies and represents all of the people of New Hampshire.”

Lindsay Hamrick, state director for the Humane Society, sounded a similar note.

“We are disappointed that there was not a broader conversation regarding the governance of Fish and Game,” she said. “

“A variety of the recommendations from the study commission require input from non-sportsmen user groups, yet those user groups were not integrated into the study commission nor are they given a seat on the commission. We will, once again, be advocating for broader representation on the Fish and Game Commission during the state budget process in 2019.”

dsolomon@unionleader.com