What is your ability to climb into a deer stand worth? How about the price of a morning in the marsh, just as the day’s first mallards cyclone into your decoys? How much would you pay to be at the side of your child as she kills her first deer? What’s the price of a meadowlark’s cheerful warble?

They sound like rhetorical questions, but these very sorts of topics are being decided for you this week, as Congressional budget-cutters debate cost vs. benefit for everything from CRP to bass hatcheries to prescribed burning in national forests.

The issue is so gargantuan that I can’t do it justice here–plus, the pace of budget negotiations is changing so fast that any specifics may be obsolete within an hour. But there are some very basic questions at stake here, and the way you answer them is just as valid today as it will be next week, or next year.

Boiled down to its essence, the question for hunters and anglers–and the legislators we elect–is whether you consider conservation a kind of welfare or an engine of economic development.

If it’s the former, that is, if we are subsidizing conservation because we have the discretionary income as a nation to do that, then we are living on borrowed time (and assets) as our economy contracts and budget-planners try to trim up to $61 billion over the next week. And we should be cutting, deep and wide, in order to bring our crazy deficit-spending under control so future generations don’t have to make the hard choices that we have shirked.

But if it’s the latter, if you believe as I do that every dollar invested in conservation is returned many-fold to the larger economy, then we need to do a better job of stating our case. And there’s not a moment to lose.

Because, if I’m right about this, then instead of cutting funds for wildlife habitat, fishing access and clean-water projects, we should be putting more money into those sorts of programs, and then demanding that they show a return on our investment.

Here’s the ugly truth: The portion of the federal budget devoted to land and water conservation and environmental protection amounts to less than .5% of the total non-defense discretionary appropriations.

Budget cutters could kill wetlands conservation, redirect royalties from off-shore oil drilling to non-habitat projects, shutter federal fish hatcheries, close federal lands (even those that are self-supporting with user fees) to sportsmen, end wildlife monitoring conducted of the U.S. Geological Service and seriously constrict the flow of excise taxes on sporting goods that’s keeping state fish and game agencies on life support.

Are those welfare programs? I don’t think so, and hard numbers back up that perspective. Here in Montana, a number of studies have confirmed year after year that every dollar spent by Montana’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department generates $16.23 in local economies.

It does it by effectively managing wildlife, which attracts hunters who buy cafe dinners, rent motel rooms, fill gas tanks. It does it by paying landowners to open their gates to hunters. It does it by ensuring that streams are clean and cold enough for the trout that anglers pursue with Woolly Buggers and spawn sacks.

There are examples like this all across the country. Just how many hotel rooms would be rented in Hayes, Kansas in early December without deer to hunt or pheasants to flush? How many RV propane bottles would be filled in Superior, Montana without trout and elk seasons?

I learned years ago the difference between making a living and making a life. Yes, we need to balance our budgets, as individuals and nations, but we also need to make financial decisions based on clinical reason instead of emotion.

The return on investment of natural resource management is clear and convincing, but there’s another reason to restore cuts to wildlife: it makes our lives worth living.

Going back to my question at the top of this blog, I can’t quantify the value of opening day, or seeing my kids score a bullseye, or watching sage grouse dance. But I know that my life would be emptier without all those things. Yes, I’ll pay more for hunting licenses. I’ll pay more for gas to get to my favorite hunting areas. But take those opportunities away from me, and I would be broke, if not in dollars than in spirit.

To contact your congressperson about this issue click here.

Photo: tuchodi