In 1998, more than 83,000 Mississippians paid more than required for the privilege of hunting and fishing in this state when they each paid $32 for their Sportsman’s licenses — 100% of which went directly into the coffers of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. More than $2 million was generated.
Since October 1997, 17,500 Mississippians happily paid $30 each to purchase wildlife-adorned car tags, $20 of which went directly to MDWFP, voluntarily giving it another $350,000! And in 1998, enough Mississippi taxpayers who were entitled to state income tax refunds checked “yes” on their tax returns to voluntarily contribute another $20,000 or so to MDWFP.
What makes hard-working folks in one of the lowest per capita income states in the union almost crawl over each other to ante up cash to a state agency?
I put that question to Bill Quisenberry, executive assistant at MDWFP.
His answer was three-fold: First, he reminded us of the “land ethic tradition” of our state. Mississippians are rooted in the soil as an integral part of our heritage and are seriously interested in promulgating our natural resources, whether for work or play. Second, he attributed much of it to the leadership of Dr. Sam Polles, executive director since July 1992. With Polles at the helm, growth of the department has been widely attributed to his insistence on improving customer service and financial responsibility — two little items the CEO’s of every major corporation would tell you are absolutely essential for any business organization. Each major division of the agency — game management, law enforcement, freshwater fisheries, natural science museum, state parks and support services — now has its own mission statement.
Polles has also elicited input from his MDWFP employees, as well as the public. And both he and assistant director, Bob Tyler, regularly meet with the public, simultaneously educating while also seeking input.
Quisenberry added that the change allowing gubernatorial succession helped tremendously since the same governor and department staff now had an eight-year agenda to work with instead of the old four-year system, which tended to create turnover before missions could be completed. And third, Quisenberry credited great legislative support during recent years in both the Mississippi House and the Senate, as several much-needed bills have been passed, allowing the department to work toward accomplishing its goals.
One example is the historic Scenic Streams Bill which recently passed. This law is designed to preserve the natural beauty of specified streams in the state. Already, certain portions of the Wolf River, Black Creek, Okatoma Creek, Strong River, Pearl River and Buttahatchie River have been designated as eligible for inclusion in this program.
Quisenberry also noted another remarkable statistic to help us understand this agency’s support from the public. It is estimated that the 1,100 full-time/part-time employees of MDWFP interface with approximately 75% of the general public in our state! And most of those encounters are pleasant, whether it is a park ranger coming by a campsite to pick up fees and share a cup of coffee or a grinning hunter with his eight-point buck at a check station in a management area.
Operating next fiscal year with a $65 million budget, MDWFP has the broadest mission of any state department. We all know that deer and turkey hunting and fresh and salt water fishing opportunities abound throughout the state’s woods and waters. But MDWFP also operates 27 state parks which offer cabins, camping, hiking, wildlife watching, photography, tours and so forth. They also teach hunter and boating education courses and produce “Mississippi Outdoors,” a bi-monthly magazine and weekly television program hosted by Melvin Tingle touting the good life in the outdoors of our state. The agency also participates in “Listen to the Eagle,” a weekly radio and television program hosted by outdoor celebrity Paul Ott Carruth.
MDWFP obtains its operating revenue from three sources: 1) general funds from sales taxes in the state; 2) special funds, which are generated through the sales of hunting and fishing licenses and wildlife car tags, etc. An example of expenditures from the special funds category might be for research on non-game animals, such as the bald eagle or gopher tortoise; and 3) federal funds.
When I asked for specifics about what the department is doing to keep up the good work and to assure the future of our outdoors heritage, Quisenberry pointed out the well-received special hunting days granted last year which allowed youths escorted by an adult to harvest deer before opening weekend. That was so popular that the same concept has now been extended by the legislature to many other game animals, including turkey, quail, and rabbit. Ron Garavelli, head of the fishing division, has also begun efforts to have inner city kids taken on fishing trips by adults.
As MDWFP prepares to move into its new $7.5-million administrative building early next year, no one there appears to be resting on their laurels. Thanks to continued support of the Legislature, the department is currently drafting a $15-million bond bill to fund critical dam repairs, new fishing lakes, fish hatcheries and upgrading of wildlife management areas. Two beautiful golf courses recently opened at state parks in Percy Quinn near McComb and John Kyle near Sardis, and another one is proposed for Hugh White State Park near Grenada.
Outdoor recreation is definitely big business in Mississippi. A survey done in 1991 estimated that it produces $1.6 billion annually in our state. This generates $44.4 million in state sales taxes and $2.4 million in state income taxes! To keep up with this phenomenal growth, MDWFP has installed a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week telephone system enabling people to purchase licenses (1-800-5GO-HUNT) and a nationally advertised 800 number (1-800-GO-PARKS) to receive park information and reservation assistance. It has also implemented a universal license form and opened its own Web site (www.mdwfp.com) which has links with other related Web sites.
Evidently, this forward-thinking department intends to maintain its enviable reputation for being the rare department of state government which makes folks happy to pay to play in the great Mississippi outdoors.
Bill Lea, an avid outdoorsman, is a financial advisor with Lincoln Financial Advisors in Jackson. Contact him at email@example.com.