Hunters, anglers among many in crosshairs of state budget crisis

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LAUDERDALE COUNTY, Ala. (WHNT) - Tuesday morning Department of Conservation & Natural Resources (DCNR) Commissioner Gunter Guy gathered with DCNR leadership and community leaders at Joe Wheeler State Park to discuss the potential impacts to the department.

They say they may be forced to shut down all 22 state parks if they are required to transfer money to the general fund for a fifth year in a row by the Legislature.

“This funding crisis is very real for our department,” said Commissioner Guy. “After four years in a row of being forced to transfer a total of $27 million to the general fund, the state parks reserve funds are completely depleted.  If we are hit with a fifth year of transfers, we’ll have no other option but to look at other agencies within the department that receive federally matched dollars for those funds. That will guarantee a $25 million payback we’ll be required to pay the federal government.”

The DCNR oversees the State Parks System, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, Marine Resources and State Lands.

That means gamers and fishermen are in the crosshairs too. Because of the number of layoffs that would be felt throughout the department, it could mean fewer days for fishing and hunting in the state.

"If one dollar of license sales goes to the general fund, that means our state is in diversion," explained Chuck Sykes, director of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries division. "We would owe 25 million dollars back to fish US fish and wildlife services.

Sykes said when you take that 25 million and add it to 18-million in proposed cuts to DCNR,  the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division is drained. Which to many, doesn't seem fair.

"This is an agency that is funding its self," Sykes stressed. "We don't take any money from the general fund."

He explained that Alabama hunters are the seventh highest spenders in the nation, but budget cuts could put a hold on the season, even if no budget comes through by October first.

"Our law enforcement is at a 35 year low. We have 27 counties that only have one officer," Skyes added. "Fishing makes up a large portion of our state's economy, and these cuts could mean fewer biologists. What if our fish hatcheries can't produce enough fish to replenish some of these areas?"

Alabama’s State Parks are a significant economic engine in the communities where they exist, attracting tourists from all over the country and the world. The parks provide critical quality of life elements that are important to citizens and tourists alike.

“Our State Parks System is largely self-sustainable,” said Greg Lein, Alabama State Parks Director. “Compared to our neighboring Southern states, our parks system is the most self-sufficient. The annual park system’s economic impact on our state is more than $375 million. We rely on our guest fees to run our parks. Only a very small percentage of our budget – maybe 10-15 percent comes from the Legislature, but we haven’t even received that over the past few years.”

The Legislature is scheduled to convene for a second special session in the coming weeks to seek a solution to the budget crisis.

To learn more about the funding crisis and how Alabama State Parks is funded, click here.