FWC Carries on the Public Trust Doctrine

By: Bob Wattendorf, FWC Release
By: Bob Wattendorf, FWC Release

Tallahassee, Florida - June 1, 2011 -

For my 32 years with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), I have been one of those folks dealing with the stigma of “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.”

Fortunately, the FWC has an outstanding public reputation, and most people who care about nature and are outdoors enjoying our resources understand that we provide a valuable service. FWC staff manage fish and wildlife resources for their long-term well-being and the benefit of people.

Long ago, resource users and everyone who benefited from healthy fish and wildlife and beautiful natural areas entrusted governments with the responsibility of protecting and sustaining nature. The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation describes how governments pay to ensure safe and sustainable public fishing and hunting opportunities and to conserve wildlife and their habitats. That model incorporates the “Public Trust Doctrine.”

The Public Trust Doctrine is part of common law, and each state customizes it to establish public rights in navigable waters and along shores. This is because people use these common areas for food, travel and commerce and need to share them.

The doctrine has three core principles. First, fish and wildlife are public resources. Second, they are managed for the common good. Third, trained professionals hold them in custodianship and serve as trustees who are accountable to the public.

In Florida, the state constitution codifies existing common law, ensuring the state holds title to navigable lakes and streams for use by the people. The doctrine protects water bodies that were navigable at the time of statehood.

Building on this, in 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act. This act has been crucial to implementing the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. In 1950, sportsmen and businesses teamed with conservation-minded policymakers to redirect existing federal excise taxes on fishing tackle to a new Sport Fish Restoration Program (aka: SFR, Dingell-Johnson or Wallop-Breaux).

The concept was to restore sport fish populations and improve public access, so more people can enjoy fishing and fishing sales would increase. Sport Fish Restoration came about because anglers wanted to see more money directed toward restoring the nation’s recreational fisheries, thus ensuring better fishing opportunities for themselves and future generations. It has been the best thing for anglers since mass production of fishing reels.

Today, SFR uses a small excise tax on fishing reels and other fishing tackle, as well as a motorboat fuel tax, to fund sport-fish restoration and boating access programs. It is working. There are now 77 percent more anglers than in 1950. Moreover, purchases of tax-related items by anglers have increased by nearly 200 percent in constant dollars since 1955.

Anglers and fishing businesses want to know the benefits they receive in return. To help answer this, Andrew Loftus Consulting and Southwick Associates analyzed data on excise taxes invested, fishing participation, and angler purchases of excise-tax-related products for a 2011 report to the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. The report found that excise-tax-related return on investment ranged from 1,585 percent in 1970 to 2,643 percent in 1980.

In Florida, SFR provided $13 million in 2010, of which 15 percent went to boating access. Freshwater fisheries conservation received $5.5 million, and the rest went to saltwater fisheries. In fresh water, the FWC uses this money to improve fisheries habitat, stock fish, conduct research and manage fish populations. The FWC also conducts aquatic education programs and provides fishing and conservation information to anglers.

The bottom line is that the Public Trust Doctrine, the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, your fishing license fees and Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration work hand-in-hand with anglers and other folks who are concerned about our natural resources to ensure safe and sustainable use for everyone.

For me, that makes it much easier to say, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

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