Success story

Photo By LIBRARY OF CONGRESS U.S. Sen. Key Pittman of Nevada chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and served as president pro tem of the Senate. His Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act is still protecting wildlife three-quarters of a century after its enactment. Pittman was photographed here with Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge (right) in February 1938

What the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation calls the “most successful conservation legislation in the history of North America” turned 75 this week.

Though it did not become effective until July 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act on Sept. 2, 1937, and that approval is being celebrated around the nation.

“It’s the most important conservation act ever passed,” said Nevada Wildlife Department director Ken Mayer. “These dollars are essential to our agency. We wouldn’t be functioning without it.”

Also known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, the law has provided $7 billion over the decades, pulling species like the bald eagle, white-tailed deer, wood ducks and wild turkeys back from endangered status. It did not rely on federal action, instead giving state programs an assist.

In Nevada, it has been instrumental in protecting populations of both game and non-game species like the mule deer, bighorn sheep, golden eagles and desert tortoise.

It provides for setting aside the excise tax on firearms and ammunition for allocation to states for wildlife restoration, assuming the states comply with certain guidelines such as the creation of a state fish and game department, enactment of wildlife conservation laws, and a ban on diverting of license fees paid by hunters for any other purpose.

Mayer has high praise for that last regulation.

“For me, the biggest thing is that in that law it said that a state was not eligible to take the dollars from sportsman unless they have a law that provides for security for those dollars,” he said. “From my perspective, that was a stroke of genius—can you imagine, with all the years, all the ups and downs, the temptation to tap those dollars for other things?”

The law was a product of a convergence of influences—the first American Wildlife Conference called by Roosevelt in 1936, the agitation of a lawyer/newspaper editor/Oregon fish and game chief named Carl Shoemaker, the legislative sponsorship by Senators Key Pittman of Nevada and Willis Robertson of Virginia, father of television evangelist Pat Robertson. Pittman, president pro tempore of the Senate, died three years after the Act was enacted.

That conference called by Roosevelt was actually the continuation of a series of 21 gatherings called American Game Conferences, the change in names reflecting an evolution of concerns in wildlife restoration.

“It is a central part of the North American Model of wildlife management and is a model envied by the rest of the world,” Nevada wildlife official Patrick Cates wrote about Pittman-Robertson earlier this year. “It is no exaggeration to say this act is largely responsible for bringing wildlife back from the brink in this country after the unregulated commercialized hunting of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”

Grants began in 1939. By 1941, all but two states participated in the program, splitting $2,530,000. With the 25 cents in state funds for each 75 cents provided by the feds, $3,373,333 was applied to wildlife restoration that year. That is $52,574,427.46 in 2012 dollars.

Paradoxically, Pittman’s home state was not one of the 46 states participating. News reports said Nevada and Georgia had not yet enacted state legislation and funding.

In 1944, syndicated outdoors columnist Johnny Mock suggested that the Pittman-Robertson program had been slowed by the war and urged that the money accumulated in the fund be put to work before the end of hostilities. “One of the best conservation measures ever passed by Congress was the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid to State Wildlife Restoration Act,” Mock wrote. “Only the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty and Act has been of greater benefit to the wildlife restoration program. … With a great deal of work possible in the conservation field, before Johnny comes marching home, Congress should be urged to appropriate the $9 million now lying idle in the treasury at Washington. The fund was earmarked for such purposes and should be put to work.” Nine million dollars in 1944 is $117,155,454.55 in 2012 dollars. Mock also wrote, “All states but Nevada have given consent to the act.”

As late as 1945, the Sportsman’s Club of Mineral County published a statement in the Hawthorne newspaper that was critical of the legislature for failing to provide the small state contribution. “Refusal for participation in the immense federal allotment of funds created by the Pittman-Robertson act has placed Nevada in the position of ‘cutting off her nose to spit her face,’ and the reduced quantities of game in the hills is a clear indication that something is suffering because of this backward and indifferent attitude,” it read. “It would appear that Mineral county’s delegation to the Nevada state legislature would be making a very valuable contribution to the development of the state if at the next meeting of the legislature they would introduce and sponsor bills enabling Nevada to participate in the Pittman-Robertson funds, enjoy a centralized state control of game reserves and remove for all time this phase of natural resources from the local ‘political football’ lists.”

However, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies has figures that say Nevada received $16,823 from Pittman-Robertson in 1939 and $43,456 in 1941. There is no explanation for the conflict.

Nevada received about $8 million from Pittman-Robertson in fiscal year 2010.

In spite of Nevada’s initial disinterest in the program, Nevada Democrats to this day embrace the Act as a party legacy because Key Pittman—for whom Harry Reid named one of his sons—and Willis Robertson were Democrats. The Nevada Outdoor Democratic Caucus—an arm of the state party—has a page posted on its website describing the act in detail and calling it “assurance of a steady source of earmarked funds [that] has enabled the program’s administrators, both state and federal, to plan projects that take years to complete, as short-term strategies seldom come up with lasting solutions where living creatures are involved. … Areas famous for their wildlife have directly benefited from this spending, but so have sporting goods and outdoor equipment manufacturers, distributors and dealers. Thousands of jobs have been created.”

Across the nation, state governments have been celebrating the Act. The Oklahoma Wildlife Department issued a glossy history of the Act, “The Greatest Conservation Story Never Told.” The Michigan Department of Natural Resources announced a year-long celebration. Pennsylvania, New Jersey and other states have observed the anniversary.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation has put up a commemorative website at http://wsfr75.com/. Tahoe Films has posted an online video on the anniversary. The Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation scheduled a commemoration at its Las Vegas national convention.

Just as Nevada was apparently slow using the act, its commemoration is also coming late, but the governor is expected to issue a proclamation and hold a ceremony.

The Act has been amended a number of times during its history—the tax was extended to archery equipment, for instance—and there is an effort underway now to use some of the funds to build shooting ranges.

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.