Game & Fish commissioners work to address generational changes, infrastructure challenges

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 651 views 

The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission is an independent state agency that oversees the protection, conservation and preservation of various species of fish and wildlife in Arkansas. The agency generates awareness of ethical and sound management principles, sets fishing and hunting regulations, and works to manage environmental awareness and wildlife populations.

Two of the commissioners — newly named Anne Marie Doramus and vice-chair Andrew Parker — sat down for a lengthy interview with Talk Business & Politics editor-in-chief Roby Brock as part of a monthly “Power Lunch” series.

Doramus, who was appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson earlier this year, is the first woman appointed to a full term on the Game and Fish Commission. Parker was appointed to his seven-year term by then-Gov. Mike Beebe in 2014.

This Q&A has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Roby Brock: Speak to me about the generation gap that is being experienced in Arkansas and that the Game and Fish Commission is dealing with.

Andrew Parker: It’s not only that we are losing the kids, we’re losing the families. We’re losing, really, whole generations, so it’s more profound than just the youth. There has been a tremendous focus on how do you try to bring people back in? So much work is being done to try to provide the tools, the locations to make this as an attractive and available opportunity everywhere. So as our education staff grows, it is specifically to try to make it something that parents can bring their kids and do comfortably.

Anne Marie Doramus: So, yes, there’s a huge decline in our youth. The fact of the matter is kids aren’t going outside like they used to. It’s just a fact, something that we see. You can blame it on technology as much as you want. I think that is a huge factor, but another thing is their parents. Not that they haven’t wanted to get out and go hunt or fish or spend time outside – they don’t know where to start.

You see a lot of single mothers out there — they have sons, daughters — who are at a loss on, “Hey, how do I get my kid to do this? They’re glued behind a computer or TV all the time.” The resources that Arkansas Game and Fish has through our nature centers, through “Becoming an Outdoor Woman,” several other programs that we cater to expose adults to this and get them outdoors. That’s one thing.

I’m a founding member of the Arkansas Outdoor Society. That is a new group that we started in the fall of 2018. A guy named Blake Pond, who’s from Stuttgart, has lived in Dallas for the past five or six years. He was a member of a group called Stewards of the Wild. And he said, “I want to bring this group to Arkansas because it’s statewide.” It gets young professionals between 21 and 40 introduced to the outdoors in just little things, whether it’s going on a hike, going on a kayaking trip on the Buffalo River, going out and doing a trap shoot.

This past weekend, we had a group of six people go out for their first mentored deer hunt. I think all but one was successful. She got skunked that morning, didn’t see anything. But the other five all shot their first doe. That is so cool. That’s something that they never would’ve had the opportunity to do. They went and did their Hunters’ Ed Course, went to the rifle range, learned gun safety. And all through this group of volunteers who are passionate about teaching them. Hopefully, they get interested and go to their local stores and get more into it and, hopefully, pass it along to their children. So, that’s what we’re hoping for: recruit, retain, reactivate.

Brock: Walk me through Game and Fish Commission funding. Obviously, licenses are a revenue stream for you. The 1/8th cent sales tax portion is a revenue stream for you. How is your money generated and is it improving or declining?

Doramus: We certainly don’t have enough of it. That’s for sure.

Parker: We own and manage 624,000 acres of lakes, 100,000 miles of rivers. We have eight regional offices, five education centers, four nature centers with one really important one on the way, plus the headquarters. We cooperate with other partners to manage 3.6 million acres. Our funding sources come from the 45% of the 1/8th cent conservation sales tax. About a third of it comes from our license sales, and then a third of it comes from federal match money when you buy ammunition, guns, and other things.

Brock: What do you think your revenue options are for the future? Where are you going to get more money that you might need?

Parker: Internally is where we’re starting. We have great partnerships with groups like the Nature Conservancy, other national organizations that help us go chase grant money. That is one avenue that we are spending a lot of energy focusing on. We have grant coordinators in the office that do a phenomenal job of going after federal grants, state grants to find sources that exist. We are working on how you reach conservation license purchases for people who don’t hunt or fish currently. How do you get those people to participate?

So, recent conversations are how do you attach a conservation piece to the turkey population, to a black bass population, other areas that people have a particular interest in? How do you reach out to those non-consumptive users, which is a population that continues to grow? We are exploring every single one of those. How do you be more efficient with the resources that you have? And then, there are certainly conversations that need to take place to look at additional large funding that may exist.

Brock: What are some of the big infrastructure challenges that you see on the horizon? You’ve known about it for years. It’s not going away.

Doramus: Well, as far as our outdated infrastructure goes, our hatchery in Lonoke. It was built 50 years ago. And it looks the exact same as when our director, Pat Fitts, worked there 50 years ago. It’s vintage, but it is most certainly outdated. The entire thing. It’s not the only one. Throughout the state, we have that. Our hatchery up on the Spring River is outdated. So, important facilities like that, that obviously benefit our anglers, that’s something that we really need to look into. But we also have to run this agency every single day. We’ve got payroll and several other expenses that obviously trump that, but I don’t know what the future holds.

Parker: We have recently encountered an experience at Hurricane Lake Management Area, which is a relatively small management area that’s around Searcy. There have been hundreds of acres of bottomland hardwoods that have been dying off at a fairly rapid pace. Lots of the tops of trees are dying. Lots of basal swelling, it’s called. Lots of cracks in those trees that these areas are dependent on to have successful waterfowl, deer, all the wild populations to exist.

It is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to what this issue looks like statewide. We have approximately three million acres of wild landscape. A significant portion of that is what we claim as being the crown jewel of waterfowl in North America, which is those bottomland hardwoods, which are in serious need of tremendous attention. None of this is something that can be done overnight. None of it is something that we can do on the cheap. It’s the plumbing in these areas. It’s the levees. It’s the dams. It’s all the water control structures. It’s how the water is managed. It is literally a “from the ground up” effort that we are quantifying and calculating just how bad that need is. It’s in every single area of this state, in everybody’s backyard. There is between 40% and 60% of those bottomland hardwoods that are in serious distress, if not dead, right now.

Doramus: There’s too much water being on them for a long period of time. It all comes down to a drainage issue. In Hurricane in particular, that’s exactly what happened. The proper drainage system was not in place up there. Beautiful, beautiful timber. We’ve had to go through and take down several trees that will take many years to get back. Hopefully, our grandchildren will see it. But Hurricane’s not the only one. There are several other of our WMAs [wildlife management areas] that are at risk for that.

Parker: It is going to be the thing that dominates the conversation for us and for all of our partners and for everybody in the state. The billions of dollars that this generates in economic development and tourism and all of those things are tied to the condition of these areas — for better or worse — that’s the responsibility that we have.

Brock: Do you have a price tag on what that is? When we talk about highway infrastructure, there’s the ability to put a price tag on that. Do you have a price tag on this?

Parker: We’re working on it. It’s a nine-digit number from what we know right now. I’d hate to put a specific number on it yet.