By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
There’s an old saying that to find a person’s passion, follow the money. That apparently is true for Alabama’s hunters, who fuel the economies in many parts of the state that need it the most.
To ensure the citizens of the state understand how important hunting is to the state’s well-being, both economically and culturally, Hunting Works for Alabama was formed last year to enlist the aid of the business community to spread this important message.
“Hunting Works for Alabama is basically a grass-roots group of people who want to make sure we inform the public about the enormous impact hunters have on our economy,” said Tim Wood, one of the four co-chairs of Hunting Works for Alabama. “You’re talking about a $1.8 billion industry in the state. You’re talking about $375 million that people spend on just hunting-related equipment. Travel expenses, hunters are spending about $405 million a year. That’s travel, fuel, food and lodging.
“In the rural part of the state, that is extremely important. The tax dollars and economic benefits in these rural areas, it would be devastating if they didn’t have it. You could look at Demopolis, Selma, Camden and Faunsdale and look at the effects on these areas. It would be absolutely devastating.”
Wood, the general manager of Central Alabama Farmers Co-Ops in Selma, said the co-ops he manages cover the Alabama Black Belt, which is known for its rich soil, great hunting and fragile economy. Wood said the importance of hunting is reflected in their business model.
“Our business has changed,” said Wood at the second annual Hunting Works for Alabama meeting at the Civilian Marksmanship Program Talladega range last week. “We used to make money three months out of the year, March, April and May, from selling fertilizer, chemicals and seeds. Now we make our money in September, October and November. The paradigm has absolutely swapped. We’re also a sporting goods company that sells firearms. You don’t see that at farm stores. We sell hunting apparel. Our focus is on the hunting industry.”
According to the latest figures, about 44,000 non-residents hunt in Alabama annually. Because the costs of non-resident licenses are significantly higher than resident licenses, those non-resident sales provide a significant funding source for the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. The economic impact from non-resident hunters also ripples throughout the state.
“What I think is so important is the out-of-state dollars coming into the state,” Wood said. “You’re talking about some of the poorest areas in Alabama in the Black Belt. People travel from all over the United States to go deer hunting in Alabama. These people are paying lodging taxes, buying food and gas, and buying hunting licenses, which supports the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. These tax dollars are not just being used by people in the hunting industry. It affects everybody in Alabama. Even the birders benefit from hunting in Alabama because the habitat enhancement made for hunting benefits all wildlife.”
Wood also outlines the importance of more hunting opportunities for the general public.
“Hunting leases have become so expensive,” he said. “People are having to pay $15 to $20 an acre for a place to hunt. The everyday hunter back in the old days didn’t pay anything. If you wanted to go hunting, you could go up the road and some farmer or landowner would let you hunt. Those days aren’t here anymore.
“That is why it is absolutely critical that programs like Forever Wild and the Wildlife Management Areas from Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries provide the everyday citizen places to hunt and give them a reason to buy hunting licenses. It is crucial that this Division is properly funded.”
Chuck Sykes, Director of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, said that proper funding Wood mentioned can only be realized when people buy hunting licenses.
“We rank seventh in the nation on hunting-related expenditures,” Sykes said. “If you’re not familiar with the Pittman-Robertson Act, it levies a tax on firearms, ammunition and other hunting equipment. That money goes to Washington, and it’s divvied back out to the state wildlife agencies, based on states’ hunting license sales, so they have a constant source of funding. For every dollar of hunting licenses sold, Pittman-Robertson matches that with 3 federal dollars, which is a great return on our investment.
“When I first started in 2012, our apportionment was $8 million. Last year, it was $18 million. How did that happen? During the previous administration in Washington, people were buying firearms and stocking up on ammunition because they were scared of potential gun legislation. The problem was those same people weren’t buying hunting licenses. We can’t get to that money unless people buy hunting licenses. So the money that hunters pay into that fund, if we can’t sell enough hunting licenses, that money will go to another state. For us to be able to provide goods and services for the people of the state and to help support the economics, we have to have hunting license sales that will allow us to put conservation officers and biologists in the field.”
Sykes offered a statistic that stuns just about everybody who hears it. Sykes asks for an estimate on the percentage of Alabama’s almost 5 million citizens who buy hunting licenses. The estimate normally ranges from 15 to 50 percent.
“We receive not one penny from the State General Fund. Not one tax dollar goes to provide goods and services,” Sykes said. “It’s all hunting and fishing licenses. Most people have no idea that only 3.8 percent of Alabama citizens buy hunting licenses. We’ve got to get that number up if we’re going to be competitive. We have to have licenses sold and the dollars from those sales to get to the federal money from Pittman-Robertson.”
Wood said anybody or any business that wants to become a member of Hunting Works for Alabama can sign up and it won’t cost a dime. Go to www.huntingworksforal.com for information or to join the organization.
“When you become a member, you’re able to come to our meetings and meet with other people in the industry,” he said. “You learn the facts and figures about the economic importance of hunting in the state. We are fortunate to be in Alabama, where we are a hunting and gun-friendly state. It’s a luxury, and we want to keep it that way.
“We’re trying to build a network of support. Eventually, we’re going to have to talk to our legislators, because there will be issues that come up that will end up in the Legislature. We need to have voices in the different districts who will contact these legislators to express how important hunting is to the state.”
After one year, Hunting Works for Alabama has 107 members with a goal of reaching at least 150 by the end of the year. Pam Swanner of Alabama Black Belt Adventures, David Dexter of Mobile and Grant Lynch, chairman of the Talladega Superspeedway, serve as the other co-chairs for the organization.
“We’re looking for slow growth,” Wood said. “When you have an all-volunteer staff, we have paying jobs we have to tend to. But for many of us, this does affect our paying jobs. And it also affects our way of life, which I think is more important.”
PHOTOS: (David Rainer) Participants in the Hunting Works For Alabama event recently were treated to a round of sporting clays at the state-of-the-art Civilian Marksmanship Program Talladega facility. Joe Baya of Great Days Outdoors Magazine tracks the clay target before pulling the trigger. Ed Poolos, Deputy Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and Chuck Sykes, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Director, check out the flight of the targets before Poolos steps up to fire away.