Austin Booth: Game & Fish is Sharpening Focus on Habitat, Water Quality

Austin Booth, director of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission.
Austin Booth, director of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. (Karen E. Segrave)
Arkansas Game & Fish Commission Director Austin Booth and his 16-week-old black lab, Coupe.
Arkansas Game & Fish Commission Director Austin Booth and his 16-week-old black lab, Coupe. (Karen E. Segrave)
Arkansas Game & Fish Commission Director Austin Booth and his 16-week-old black lab, Coupe.
Arkansas Game & Fish Commission Director Austin Booth and his 16-week-old black lab, Coupe. (Karen E. Segrave)
Arkansas Game & Fish Commission Director Austin Booth and his 16-week-old black lab, Coupe.
Arkansas Game & Fish Commission Director Austin Booth and his 16-week-old black lab, Coupe. (Karen E. Segrave)

The state Game & Fish Commission unanimously elected Austin Booth to lead the commission on May 27, 2021. He replaced the retiring Patt Fitts. Booth was the first external hire in 21 years. Booth, a native of Scott, was a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps in multiple capacities from 2011-19; he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2015-16. He had previously served as chief of staff and CFO of the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs. Booth is a graduate of The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, and received his Juris Doctor from the University of South Carolina School of Law.

How have commission efforts to rehabilitate red oak trees in duck habitats been going?

I am incredibly proud of our progress in the last year. We announced a more proactive approach to water level management at some of our largest green tree reservoirs and launched a series of restoration projects. Since then, we’ve completed the first phase of renovation at Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area on schedule and under budget. We are also making tremendous progress at Bayou Deview WMA and plan to begin renovation at Black River WMA next calendar year, and we are in the hydrology phase of design and engineering at Bayou Meto WMA. Most recently, we received a national award for our work on this challenge, for both the rigorous methodology in restoring the habitat and for our communications effort a year ago.

The commissioners and I could not be more proud. But at the same time, I always remind people that the degradation of bottomland hardwood duck habitat is a challenge that developed over generations — and total restoration is a long road. We have a total of 40 greentree reservoirs on 16 WMAs and resources are a very real challenge. However, I am optimistic and look forward to tackling this with Governor-elect Sanders and the Legislature.

The commission is considering raising the cost of hunting and fishing licenses. Why the need for more revenue, and what are some examples of how the commission might use the money?

The need for additional revenue stems from three facts. First, license revenue represents roughly a third of our budget, and the cost of a basic hunting and fishing license has not substantively increased since 1984. While I strongly believe that we — as a state agency — should pride ourselves on providing value to Arkansans, we’ve let license revenue atrophy to a point where we’ve lost hundreds of millions of dollars in buying power. This translates to decades of missed opportunities.

Second, we are facing challenges on the landscape that were unthinkable in 1996 when the people of Arkansas passed the Conservation Sales Tax. These include the rapid loss of waterfowl habitat; invasive species such as feral hogs, aquatic nuisance species such as carp and giant salvinia; and wildlife health challenges like chronic wasting disease in deer.

Third, we must be accountable to Arkansans by meeting their expectations of the Arkansas outdoors. We are developing a deep sense of accountability in the agency, and we know where we need to improve. As we reprioritize as an agency, the only way for us to address the challenges we have in the present while also growing to meet future desires of Arkansans is to ask for an investment from the outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen who stand the most to gain.

Our new strategic plan, Natural State Tomorrow, lays out with great detail how we will use the increased revenue. But Arkansans should expect to see a new focus on habitat restoration, stream bank protection and water quality projects, technical assistance for private landowners, a reinvigorated trophy black bass program, and increased public shooting access.

In what ways might you try to make wildlife management areas more attractive to nonhunters? Why is this important?

Making our WMAs more user-friendly is aimed at hunters and nonhunters alike. We would like our WMAs to have better access points, whether that’s the size of the parking lots, lighting or the amenities we offer. Regarding nonhunters, it is no secret that outdoor recreation continues to diversify, and we believe we should bring conservation and the opportunity to enjoy it to all Arkansans.

I am biased, but I believe that some of our fisheries and WMAs offer the state’s best wildlife-watching and paddling opportunities. I don’t expect our WMAs to become biking destinations by any means. But there is much we can do to get the word out about how to enjoy them without disrupting hunters.

What are some direct impacts of climate change on the work of the commission?

Ask an Arkansan what they think about “climate change,” and you will get all kinds of responses. But ask an Arkansan in Desha County if they remember the 19-inch rain event in June of 2021. The amount of rainfall we receive in the late spring and early summer is crushing.

On our WMAs, it places an immense burden on our ability to divest of water and stresses both our infrastructure and bottomland hardwoods. Relative to our fisheries, the water velocity from repeated historic rain events erodes rivers and stream banks, substantially degrading both water quality and many of the state’s treasured fisheries. And unfortunately, these events are becoming the norm. We are in the process of major infrastructure modernization to make our infrastructure more resilient.

How do you plan to attract new hunters to the sport?

We have to be very honest with ourselves about what is leading to the decline in hunting and fishing, whether the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission is the best suited to combat it, and how we define success.

For example, if the decline stems from national trends such as a shrinking middle class, the growth in year-around youth sports, and the size differences between the baby boomers and Generation X, growth above long-term averages in resident hunters and anglers is unrealistic. To be clear, we will always offer anyone who is interested in learning to hunt or fish all the resources necessary to be successful, but we cannot do that on a scale large enough to make up for the 20%-plus declines that we’ve seen.

It is more important for us as a conservation agency to focus on habitat. We know what gets someone hooked on hunting and fishing is the experience of being a participant with nature. That’s more persuasive than anything we can do as an organization! So what does it take, at the most fundamental level, to create those experiences? Habitat, habitat, habitat.

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