A group of lawmakers from the North Country want Gov. Andrew Cuomo to address concerns surrounding the state's Conservation Fund.
The fund consists of money generated by hunting, fishing and trapping licensing fees. The funds are supposed to be used to support outdoor recreation and sporting opportunities.
But the chairman of the fund's advisory board says the state Division of the Budget has repeatedly denied requests to use the money for its intended purpose - that is, maintaining trails, programs, and other related services.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers say rumors have surfaced that the state will raid the fund.
Those rumors - and the DOB's reluctance to release funding for outdoor-related purposes - have prompted lawmakers from upstate New York to write Cuomo, urging him to clear the air, so to speak.
Assemblyman Tony Jordan says hunting and fishing are essential to the upstate economy. He notes that the chairman of the state's Conservation Fund Advisory Board, Jason Kemper, recently told him that the fund was being misused.
"When we're being told by the chairman that the money is not being used as required by law, it raises a red flag with me," Jordan said.
Kemper said that the Conservation Fund carries a significant balance - more than $20 million.
"We have 20 million in the bank because DOB has not released any of those funds that sportsmen licenses have put forward," he said. "Our biggest issue was the large surplus that we have, yet we can't fill hatchery positions or vacant positions, but we continue to pay licensing fees and that surplus continues to grow."
Kemper notes that about a year ago, the state Department of Environmental Conservation imposed a $10 fee for a saltwater fishing license.
But that license was repealed earlier this year, leaving freshwater anglers, hunters, and trappers footing the bill for the conservation fund.
As Kemper puts it, the state is misusing conservation funds, because licensing fees for outdoor enthusiasts in northern, central, and western New York are paying for stewardship at the state's saltwater fisheries.
Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward notes that freshwater anglers pay more than $30 to fish in New York state, while the cost for hunting licenses also increased in recent years.
"And the saltwater fishermen get away scot-free," she said. "This year, that $10 fee was rescinded. We just want to be able to discuss that with the governor. How is that fair? These fishermen pay nothing, and our money, the money raised by our sportsmen and women, goes directly to benefit them and they don't make any contribution at all."
Kemper says the surplus in the conservation fund leaves some lawmakers with the impression that it's not being used. That has outdoor advocates worried that the state Legislature will attempt to use the funds for some other purpose.
He adds that the marine license repeal has drawn attention to the fund, and some legislators might be eyeing it to make up for budget shortfalls elsewhere.
The reality, Kemper says, is that the budget division keeps turning away proposals for how to use the money in a way that benefits the outdoor community.
"We've got 11 vacant hatchery positions right now, we didn't get eggs for Raquette Lake last fall - there are a lot of things out there that we could be doing if DOB would allocate the money to DEC," he said. "What we're looking for is, the sportsmen put that money in, via license fees, for certain services, and we're not getting those services."
Assemblywoman Sayward says New York is home to some 1.4 million outdoor enthusiasts who generate an annual economic impact of about $6 billion. She notes that recent spikes in licensing fees for hunters and anglers have made those activities more expensive.
That has raised concerns from some North Country residents, Sayward says, which is why she and some of her Assembly colleagues have asked for a meeting with Cuomo.
"We're hearing them from our sportsmen and women," she said. "I think that, whether they are founded or not, it's a conversation we need to have. The state has raided snowmobile funds in the past over and over - so we're skeptical."
Sayward hopes those attempted raids will be put to rest for good.
"We have a new governor and I think it's time that we have a conversation with him that relates to this issue," she said. "So we're hoping to do that when we return to Albany."
In past years, the state has also attempted to use snowmobile licensing funds for other purposes. Those funds are supposed to be used for trail maintenance.