The S.C. Department of Natural Resources is beginning to lay the groundwork for fee increases for hunters and anglers that could pump $4.7 million more into the agency each year.
DNR has been hit hard by budget cuts as its state appropriations have dropped from $32 million to $14 million. The agency's board views a fee increase as a fair way for those who use the state's woods and waterways to pay for their upkeep and protection.
"We want to take care of the playground, and the people who play there should pay," said board chairwoman Caroline Rhodes.
Some local anglers agree.
Dave Harter, president of the Hilton Head Island Sportfishing Club, said area fishermen have supported fee increases because current costs are "too good of a deal."
"A portion of that saltwater license money comes back to Beaufort County," Harter said. "When you consider how much of it supports the Waddell Mariculture Center, for example, that's really important."
Al Stokes, manager of the Waddell center in greater Bluffton, said revenue from saltwater fishing licenses supports saltwater-related programs at the center, such as fishery studies and creation of artificial reefs.
Bo Von Harten, president of the Beaufort Sportfishing and Diving Club, said he buys licenses he doesn't need, such as a shrimp baiting license, to support DNR operations.
"That money is simply returned to DNR to use, whether for law enforcement or artificial reef programs, fish stocking programs or research," Von Harten said.
An early draft of the fee changes includes increases in freshwater and saltwater fishing licenses -- from $10 to $15 -- and for hunting licenses -- from $18 to $25.
Boat registration fees would go from a flat rate of $30 for all boats to $35 for boats less than 16 feet, and then rise incrementally based on the boat's length. That would bring in about $1 million in additional revenue.
The board has begun presenting the plan to key legislators. A formal request will be delayed until the 2013 legislative session, since any increases would be hard to approve in an election year.
"I don't like waiting," said the DNR board's Rhodes. "I don't like the idea of dragging our feet, but I don't like failure either."
Nearly one-fourth of the increase would come from a $5 boost in the freshwater fishing license for state residents, which has been $10 since 1985. The state sells about 200,000 fishing licenses each year.
The new fees still would be lower than the 14-state southern average for hunting and fishing licenses and near the average for everyone else.
Some of the fees for non-residents also would go up, but not as much and not across the board. Many of the non-resident fees were adjusted in 2003, but there hasn't been a major change in state license fees since 1985. Because few people from outside the state get South Carolina licenses, fee increases for non-residents raise little money.
Rhodes asked the agency staff to post details of the proposal on the DNR website, www.dnr.sc.gov, and schedule public meetings to discuss the changes. That would give the board time to listen to the public and tweak the proposal before taking it to the legislature.
Many outdoors-oriented groups have asked DNR to increase fees to help the agency better manage the state's wildlife and natural areas. The Camo Coalition, a group of 24 conservation organizations, is unanimously in favor of the proposal, according to Cary Chamblee, a lobbyist for the group.
Staff writer Allison Stice contributed to this report. Follow Stice at twitter.com/BlufftonBlogIP.