Grassroots advocacy results in long-term impact
Buried deep within motor vehicle legislation signed into law in Georgia this past April, readers can find a great example of CCA grassroots marine conservation at its best. This new Georgia law creates a coastal habitat license plate for Georgia drivers, which means that Georgia drivers are now able to proudly sport a redfish on their license tags.
This is exciting news for Georgia saltwater anglers and anyone else who cares about our invaluable saltwater marine resources. For nearly two decades, we’ve been able to purchase wildlife tags that reflect a wildlife conservation ethos and that help to raise money for various conservation efforts, including a tag that features a freshwater trout. But our new redfish tag is the first opportunity that saltwater anglers have had in Georgia to purchase a tag that directly promotes and impacts our saltwater marine resources.
The story of how this new law came to pass is a good fish tale that should interest all conservationists.
Think back just a few years to 2010 when the budgets of many state governments were stressed by recession and a precipitous drop in tax receipts. Politicians sought to balance the books without raising income taxes by slashing budgets and raising fees, such as license fees. The Georgia Wildlife Tag Program became a target like many other programs, as the administration spearheaded a 40 percent increase in license tag fees and a diversion of revenues from the intended conservation programs over to the general fund. Almost immediately, customers caught onto the fee diversion and stopped buying Georgia’s wildlife tags. A valuable source of non-budget funding for conservation projects became seriously impaired.
Brooks Schoen, chairman of CCA Georgia’s Government Affairs Committee which had just championed the designation of the redfish as a Georgia saltwater gamefish, was alarmed.
“Much of what the politicians did in response to the state’s budget crisis happened behind closed doors, without input from the stakeholders who would be impacted,” Schoen recalled. “When it comes to grassroots conservation organizations like CCA, we have to fight hard to get a seat at the table, because we’re usually not even invited to the dinner. Worse yet, sometimes we’re on the menu!”
Together with co-chairman Jeff Young, Schoen came up with a plan to rebuild the Wildlife Tag Program. Meanwhile, he was also wondering whether revival of the Wildlife Tag Program might accommodate a new coastal tag, a dream that CCA Georgia had nurtured for many years. Schoen and his grassroots team beat down the doors of skeptical state officials, explaining that the public had trusted that the money they paid for wildlife tags would be used for the advertised purposes.
By 2014, the CCA Georgia team had gathered together a broad-based group of legislators willing to sponsor wildlife tag reform, but none of them were enthusiastic about adding a new tag to the program. Still, the CCA Georgia team understood that general wildlife tag reform was a good foundation on which to build, and in 2014 a law was pushed through that lowered the tag fee back to $25 and permanently allocated 80 percent of the fee for conservation funding.
As soon as wildlife tag reform was signed into law, Schoen and his team began the process again, this time seeking support from a coalition of coastal legislators for a new coastal tag that would help to fund marine rehabilitation projects through the DNR’s Coastal Resources Division. Once again, state officials were polite, but not committed to the idea of expansion of the wildlife tag program. The CCA Georgia team kept advocating the issues and through their persistence the coastal tag program was passed into law.
The long-term impact for marine conservation in Georgia could be substantial. By way of illustration, if the state markets and sells 10,000 redfish tags per year, including renewals, license fees will contribute $200,000 per year to Georgia’s coastal marine habitat programs. This is a great example of CCA grassroots conservation achieving long-term funding for marine habitat projects, despite significant obstacles.