Remembering John Dingell

Apr 1, 2019

Sometimes politics and natural resources can come together for the good of all people.

In this week’s Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist reflects on the life and legacy of John Dingell.

This past February 7th, the nation lost a giant in the realm of natural resource politics, if there is such a thing. John D. Dingell Jr. spent nearly 60 years serving in Congress, from 1955-2015. During his tenure, he worked to develop and pass almost every Federal environmental law in existence. The Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Refuge Improvement act, and a protective revision to the Duck Stamp Act all owe their existence to him. He also worked tirelessly for civil rights, human rights, and health care advancement, but I can’t possibly capture over half a century of accomplishments in my five minutes here.

When I think of natural resource legislation associated with John Dingell, I immediately think of the Sport Fish Restoration Act of 1950, also known as the Dingell-Johnson Act. This act was modeled after the Pittman-Robertson act, which authorized collection of an exise tax on hunting equipment to be disbursed back to the states for conservation. Likewise, the Dingell Johnson Act collects a 10% tax on purchases of fishing-related materials including motorboat and small engine fuel, fishing equipment, fishing rods, tackle boxes and electric motors. A dime for every dollar of fishing equipment bought each year really adds up. The most recent disbursement from the SFR to the state of Wisconsin was $11.4 million dollars.  Wisconsin has received over $300 million since it started in 1952. And, since I brought up the Pittman-Robertson act, I might as well share that the last PR disbursement to Wisconsin was over $23 million; since 1939, the federal wildlife restoration grant program has contributed almost $330 million to Wisconsin wildlife management.

I am pleased to add that there is another natural resource law, passed very recently, that bears Dingell’s name—the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act. You may have heard of the Land and Water Conservation Fund? It was created in 1964, and dedicated royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling operations to fund a variety of state and federal natural resources projects. That fund became a critically important funding source for natural resource management in Wisconsin and across the county, but as it was necessary to renew it when it expired, there was always a chance that congress would not pass it. In fact, last September the LWCF was not renewed and was in peril if not picked up by our current legislative session. Thankfully, not only did renewal of the fund receive enough bipartisan support to pass, but it was extended indefinitely. The John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act will permanently continue the federal Land Water Conservation Fund. The legislation also incorporated a bipartisan "sportsmen’s package" designed to improve hunting, fishing and other recreation activity access on public lands and waters.

Dingell’s last words were recorded by his wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell, on the day he died. I don’t have time to read you everything he said, but I can share his closing words:

In my life and career I have often heard it said that so-and-so has real power — as in, “the powerful Wile E. Coyote, chairman of the Capture the Road Runner Committee.” It’s an expression that has always grated on me. In democratic government, elected officials do not have power. They hold power — in trust for the people who elected them. If they misuse or abuse that public trust, it is quite properly revoked (the quicker the better)…As I prepare to leave this all behind, I now leave you in control of the greatest nation of mankind and pray God gives you the wisdom to understand the responsibility you hold in your hands. May God bless you all, and may God bless America.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.