The Sport Fish Restoration Act is such a successful program in the United States that few anglers know that it took 11 years, an expensive world war, and overcoming a Presidential veto to eventually become law. Not only do we take for granted the immense struggle that was surmounted to enact this legislation, but we don’t even associate it with the person who fought so hard for it in the first place.
The story of Frank H. Buck II and the Sport Fish Restoration Act is like
the story of the first day I went fishing. Neither of us had much success, and ultimately we were forced to learn about patience, close calls, and coming home empty handed. That first day of fishing doesn’t show up in my photo album with pictures of big fish, but I credit that first day with creating a lifetime of fishing experiences. Similarly, despite being the first person to fight for sport fish restoration, Buck’s name is not in the law books with the Sport Fish Restoration Act, but he should be remembered for creating the idea that has provided generations with fishing opportunities.
The Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937 (also known as the Wildlife Restoration Act) was instrumental by setting aside 11% of all hunting equipment sales for establishing, restoring, and protecting wildlife habitats. The Act had some controversy attached to it, as politicians did not like to see excise tax revenues designated to a specific cause or project (politicians do not like to give up their power to spend funds over time as they see fit).
Despite some political hiccups, the Wildlife Restoration Act passed and created immediate benefits. Considering the success, Congressman Frank H. Buck II of Vacaville, California introduced a similar bill in 1939 that would direct 10% from fishing equipment, artificial lures, and all other articles and devices for recreational fishing sales to fund fishing programs and protection of aquatic habitats.
This bill was a no-brainer considering the benefits of the Wildlife Restoration Act over the previous 2 years…right? Congressman Buck was completely surprised when unexpectedly the bill did not receive support, and died at the committee level. Again, excise taxes designated to a specific cause were blamed for the failure.
Buck had been through times of adversity before when during the Great Depression he had sold the Buck Fruit Company, the family business of 47 years. He was not going to give up easily on sport fish, especially not with the salmon filled Sacramento and San Joaquin River Deltas back in his district in California.
|Buck, second from left, at Social Security
Act signing with FDR (Credit)
Buck bode his time, and even played a significant role in drafting the Social Security Act, while again championing the effort to increase support for sport fish restoration. Two years later in 1941, he reintroduced his bill. With the extra support and even further successes of the Wildlife Restoration Act during that time, the sport fish bill was sure to pass this time around.
As history would have it, Frank Buck was in for an even more difficult time this go around. The infamy of December 7, 1941 threw a huge wrench in the gears as the bill came to the floor. World War II drew the country’s fiscal efforts away from recreational activities, and focused it tightly on the war effort. His bill was sure to fall to the cutting room floor again.
But wait, Buck’s bill passed! Could it be that sport fish restoration would become a cornerstone project, providing millions of dollars to protect habitat and increase angling opportunities? Would Buck’s name be the standard bearer for this Act?
In a cruel twist for Frank Buck and for sport fish restoration, other politicians did not vote yes on the bill because they saw an inherent value in restoring fish. Rather, they saw a quick way to make more money for the war effort, and they modified and amended the bill so that the extra taxes from the sales of fishing equipment were deposited directly into the General Fund to help finance the war. Buck fought to change this, but it was too late and the war was too powerful of a cause.
In a final blow to the possibility of Buck’s name being attached to the Act, Buck died September 17, 1942. However, his name does live on, and is the title bearer of an incredibly worthy cause that has furthered the education of almost 300 young students. Almost 50 years after his death, in 1990, his wife, Eva, established the Frank H. Buck Scholarship to help students from central California attend higher education universities.
As Eva allowed Frank Buck to provide after his death, others saw the need for sport fish restoration to provide once its original champion had passed. Little did they know that they were in for a struggle similar to the one Frank had faced.
Upon completion of the war in 1945, rods, reels, and artificial lures continued to be taxed, but the money continued to go to the General Fund. Around 1947, Congressman John Dingell, Sr. of Michigan showed up on the scene, and attempted to make modifications to appease some previous concerns that fishing tackle companies had with the collection of taxes.
As expected in the tumultuous world of politics, the bill met the same fate as when Buck had tried, and failed. Yet service members were returning from war and began taking a large interest in recreational angling. Sport fishermen began putting their support behind the restoration effort, and Senator Edwin Johnson teamed with Congressman Dingell to introduce identical bills in each chamber in 1949. The bills received sweeping support and passed, but of course, it would not come that easy.
|Truman grouper fishing
in Key West, Florida (Credit)
Harry S. Truman succeeded as the 33rd President of the United States of America following the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and vetoed the bill in 1949 because of reluctance, again, to designate an excise tax for specific purposes.
Unfortunate for Truman, and fortunate for sport fish restoration, the movement had received tremendous support by this time from recreational anglers. In 1950, Dingell and Johnson put the bill forth for the final time, where it passed, and was reluctantly signed by President Truman as the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act on August 9th of that year to invest anglers’ tax dollars in state sport fishing restoration projects.
In the early 1980s, it became apparent that further funding was necessary to meet the increasing needs of the angling community, and in 1984 Senator Malcolm Wallop and Congressman John Breaux successfully amended the original Act by expanding the list of taxed items to include all fishing tackle, fuel used by motorboats, and import duties on fishing tackle and boats. Over the years, additional funding was secured, but no further names have been associated.
We are currently celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Wildlife Restoration Act. The logo below implies that both wildlife and sport fish restoration have been taking place for 75 years. Yet, we will have to wait another 13 years to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Sport Fish Restoration Act. Had congress initially recognized the long term value when Frank Buck first introduced the bill, we would only be waiting 2 more years.
As you go about your work funded by these acts, or you are enjoying the outdoors fishing with your friends and family, it is important to recognize the benefits that these acts and individuals have provided. The next time you hear someone refer to Dingell-Johnson, Wallop-Breaux, or sport fish restoration, do not forget the efforts of unrecognized people like Frank H. Buck, and give credit to those who are good stewards of the resource.
Video celebrating 75 years of restoration