Make outdoor activities more accessible to Floridians as part of wise conservation

Floridians know full well the problems with invasive species of animals. From feral hogs destroying pastures and damaging cattle to pythons upending the ecological balance of the Everglades, invasive species can wreak havoc on our environment.

These aren’t problems we can solve overnight, nor are they problems government alone can solve. Long-term solutions need to include giving the public more freedom to enjoy public lands and in doing so, take part in keeping some of the invasive species in check with both their actions and the funding from their permits.

Historically, hunters and anglers are the single largest source of both conservation efforts and funding for those efforts. President Teddy Roosevelt initially proposed the idea of conservation through “wise use.” Roosevelt, considered the father of conservation in the United States, understood the role of hunters and fishers in the wise use.

One example of this is that in some northern states where government overly restricted hunting, deer populations exploded because of the lack of natural predators. In addition to the large herds overgrazing  areas and driving deer onto farmlands to find more food, this resulted in terrible starvation deaths in bad winters because the populations were too large. When more hunting was re-installed, the deer populations declined and came into ecological balance — benefitting both the deer and the environment.

For many hunters and anglers, love of the outdoors was instilled in them by family members. I still hunt with my dad and my sons, but it’s becoming uncommon in our culture. There are half as many active hunters today as there were 50 years ago. Fewer hunters means fewer dollars dedicated to conservation. For instance, federal duck stamps alone provide $185 million in wetland conservation.

I grew up an avid outdoorsman and remain one. If we can get people to try these activities, many of them will become hooked, enjoy Florida’s outdoors more and our ecological system will be stronger while funding for conservation will increase.

In addition, we have to ratchet up our laws to stop the import of exotic invasive species that are too often discarded into the wild when it is realized they are not pets. These species can then destroy the ecological balance.

So I have filed House Bill 777 to expand Floridians’ public access to outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing, and to combat ecological harm caused by invasive species.

My bill increases the number of free fishing days permitted by the state from 4 to 6 and provides a Labor Day sales tax holiday for certain outdoor equipment, such as fishing supplies, long guns, bows and tents. The bill also clarifies Florida law on the harassment of anglers and hunters on public land and water, and tightens restrictions on invasive species such as several types of pythons, the Green Anaconda, the Nile Monitor and adds the Green Iguana and the Black and White Tegu to the list of banned for personal ownership.

A core component of the ‘wise use’ that Teddy Roosevelt spoke of is that end users — hunters and anglers — provide not just funding for conservation efforts, but are an important weapon in the arsenal of game and invasive species management.

My bill is the first step in making the amazing Florida outdoors more accessible, by making it easier for someone to try camping, fishing or hunting, and thereby become invested in the success of conservation in Florida.

Florida State Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota, represents House District 73 covering parts of Sarasota County and Manatee County.