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Imagine a major retailer that is bleeding customers to online retailers and other nontraditional outlets.

To woo new and lapsed consumers, the company promotes its stores as safe places to walk out of the weather. Visitors may ride bicycles in the aisles, use the exercise equipment and watch the televisions with no purchase necessary.

Essentially, that describes the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's budding obsession with nonconsumptive outdoors enthusiasts, loosely defined as hikers, cyclists and birdwatchers.

In 1996, Arkansas voters enacted Amendment 75, which levied a statewide, one-eighth of 1-cent sales tax to fund the Game and Fish Commission, Department of Parks and Tourism, Department of Natural Heritage and Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission.

The AGFC gets 45% of the Conservation Sales Tax. Parks and Tourism gets 45%, and Natural Heritage gets 9%. The Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission, a division of Parks and Tourism, gets 1%.

In May, Gov. Asa Hutchinson combined Parks and Tourism and Natural Heritage. The new Department of Parks, Tourism and Natural Heritage gets 54% of the sales tax.

Arkansas state parks are uniquely structured to serve hikers, cyclists and other nonconsumptive outdoors enthusiasts. As director of the Department of Parks and Tourism, Kane Webb promoted Arkansas as a worldwide cycling destination, with our state parks as flagship destinations.

Additionally, Arkansas state parks have many fine hiking trails. The agency employs trained interpreters to lead guided hikes and other programs, and they do it very well.

The Game and Fish Commission is chartered to conserve the state's fish and game populations in partnership with an entirely different constituency. Besides paying the Conservation Sales Tax, hunters and anglers must buy hunting and fishing licenses. They also pay federal excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, hunting optics, clothing, fishing equipment and marine fuel.

In short, Amendment 75 was designed to accommodate consumptive and nonconsumptive outdoors enthusiasts by equally funding separate consumptive and nonconsumptive state agencies.

Due to shrinking numbers of hunters and anglers, the Game and Fish Commission faces a financial crisis triggered by diminishing sales of hunting and fishing licenses, and dramatic reductions in federal aid grants.

Those trends are beyond the AGFC's control, but the commission reinforces a lingering perception that it is loose with its money. For example, the commission is on the hook for about $8 million to build a new nature center in Springdale. There are also small items, like a $6,516 custom smoker and trailer that Jason Parker -- a major in the enforcement division -- purchased in 2018 without complying with AGFC policy.

Since 2007, the commission has funded a popular high school trap shooting program and an even more popular school archery program, but it has no method for gauging whether participants ever become license buyers. It educates tens of thousands of schoolchildren in its four -- soon to be five -- nature centers and four conservation education centers. But it has no method to determine whether students ever become license buyers.

Obviously, the commission invests a lot of money in programs that do not produce revenue-producing constituents.

Lately, the commission believes the solution is to cultivate a new constituency of nonconsumptive outdoor enthusiasts.

There are two problems with that strategy. As mentioned earlier, Parks and Tourism already serves that constituency with a shared revenue source.

Secondly, there is no mechanism for nonconsumptive users to financially support the Game and Fish Commission's mission. You must have a hunting or fishing license to hunt and fish in Arkansas. You do not need a license to walk on a trail or to photograph wildlife.

It costs money to build and maintain trails that might actually contradict the Game and Fish Commission's mission. Encouraging human traffic in wildlife habitat decreases its value as wildlife habitat, especially high-impact activities such as mountain biking.

There are also disparities in fairness in how the AGFC interacts with consumptive versus nonconsumptive users. For example, a visitor on a wildlife management area carrying only binoculars virtually has no regulatory limitations. If that same person possesses a firearm, he is automatically subject to an entire suite of regulations.

Regrettably, we have no solutions to increase the AGFC's pool of pay-to-play constituents. However, we do not see the wisdom in flooding the store with nonpaying customers.

Sports on 07/07/2019

Print Headline: Nonpaying customers don't help AGFC's mission

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