By Randall Bonner
In a recent article published at the Oregonian, Rob Davis reported that funds raised from the sale of salmon specialty plates were being used to pay the salary and office expenses of the Oregon Water Enhancement Board’s small grants administrator, as well as a $150,000 website improvement that makes it possible to apply for grants from OWEB online.
The state’s Legislative Fiscal Office which advises the Legislature on budgeting made the decision to backfill funding to OWEB due to a decline in funding from the lottery, rather than looking for another source to make up the difference.
OWEB’s last grant to replace a culvert with money from salmon plates was awarded in 2008. The agency began using part of the revenue to fund staff positions the following year. In the past five years, the agency has spent $420,000 raised from salmon plates to fund staff salaries. Since 1998, OWEB has spent $142 million improving fish passage, with another $60 million going towards reducing erosion from roads. A majority of that funding comes from the state lottery and federal government.
The funds from salmon specialty plates sales are specifically intended to go directly towards road-related projects like removing and replacing culverts blocking salmon migration to rearing habitat. 32,000 Oregon drivers have Salmon specialty plates, paying an extra $30 bi-annually to purchase or renew them.
Former state legislator Terry Thompson from Lincoln County authored the bill in 1997 that created the salmon plate. Since then, the specialty plates have raised $9.5 million, split between OWEB and state parks.
MUCH ADO OVER NOTHING?
Renee Davis, Deputy Director, Focused Investments & Policy Manager for OWEB expressed that the Oregonian’s article created a stir because a single line from the ODOT website was inaccurate. In defense of her agency, she explained that over $600 million in funding has been invested in technical assistance and recovery projects that support native fish and wildlife habitat. Of that figure, $142.5 million has been invested specifically in “passage projects” including the removal of culverts and installing bridges, along with dam removals and other projects that improve fish access to habitat. $59.9 million has been invested in other road projects that reduce sediment and improve habitat.
Davis states that with that level of investment, “It’s important to find that delicate balance that funding goes towards on-the-ground projects, while still having the funding for monitoring and oversight.” She also points to the agency having a 10 percent staff-to- grant ratio as being “very efficient.” She recommends that anyone with concerns about budgeting should contact their legislators, but she is also happy to answer any questions about projects funded by OWEB, and can be contacted at her office.
When asked if she had salmon plates on her vehicle, she said “I purchased a used vehicle with the Crater Lake plates, which help fund the national park.” She also explained that half the funding from the salmon plates goes towards projects conducted by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
SOME POINTS & COUNTERPOINTS…
Since the story first appeared in the Oregonian, wording in the description posted on the Oregon state government website has changed several times, ambiguously explaining that funding from the plates would be “invested in activities that support the restoration and protection of watersheds, native fish, and wildlife, and water quality.” Funding the operations of OWEB, which functions as a granting agency funded by multiple sources, allows staff to apply for, receive and distribute funds through ODFW and OWEB projects being conducted on the ground by the roughly 90 watershed councils in the state of Oregon. So in a sense, funding from the plates does impact these projects directly, even if a share of the funding goes into administrative costs instead of culverts.
Kyle Smith, president of the BlueBacks chapter of Trout Unlimited and Communications & Development Director at the Calapooia Watershed Council says, “Small grants are an essential part of the value that OWEB provides to communities throughout Oregon. By supporting the salaries of OWEB administrators, Salmon Plate purchasers are contributing to the work being done by Oregon’s watershed councils and the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.”
When asked if he had salmon plates on his vehicle, Smith said, “I bought salmon plates because I believe in both the organizations they help support, and they look cool! For me, it’s not just about the financial impact my $30 a year makes, but it’s about raising awareness for the fisheries we’re lucky to have in Oregon.”
Ryan Gordon, Executive Director of the Network of Watershed Councils responded to the article by saying it “intended to invoke an emotional response, and did not fairly address both sides of the issue.” He says it’s a misunderstanding that the funding hasn’t gone towards restoration. OWEB needs that staff capacity to be able to administer those grants. The funding from the license plate sales allows that agency to fill a hole in the budget. He further explained, “The money from those plates does in some way go towards restoration, even if it doesn’t directly get used to purchase culverts.”
When asked if had salmon plates on his vehicle, Gordon said, “I don’t actually… but I just bought a car from a dealership that had plates already on it.”
SOURCES & RELEVANT LINKS
Renee Davis can be reached at (503)986- 0203 and the state’s Legislative Budget Office can be reached at (503)986-1828