License plates have certainly gotten more colorful in recent years! What was once a bland assortment of duo-toned numbers is now a mobile art gallery of nature imagery. Environmental plates have caught on in a big way. Throughout the country, these tags have become wildly popular and are generating millions of dollars for a wide variety of causes.
In 1990, Florida became the first state to offer a specialty license plate. Its distinctive “Save the Manatee” design became a huge success, as well as the most popular plate in the state. At $20 each, the manatee tags have generated a total of $22 million for the Save the Manatee Trust Fund. According to David Arnold of the Florida Bureau of Protected Species Management, “The manatee population is definitely larger than it used to be, which is a good indication that our management strategies are working. This work could not have been possible without the funding that we have received from the sale of the plates.”
Another unique icon in the Sunshine State is the endangered Florida panther, whose image on a “Save the Panther” plate sells for $25 each. The tag has brought in more than $25 million, 85 percent of which is earmarked for the Florida Panther Research and Management Trust Fund. Florida now has eight separate conservation plates, representing everything from the Everglades to endangered sea turtles.
The success of the Florida programs inspired others, and more than half the states now have environmental tags. In 1994, the Massachusetts Environmental Trust (MET) lobbied the state legislature to authorize a conservation plate. “The right whale plate is a real success story,” says Robbin Peach, the MET’s executive director. “The wonderful thing is that the money goes directly into a philanthropy, which can then determine where it will be best used.” MET even benefits from a state plate depicting the water mill that launched the state’s industrial development. According to Ann Zulkosky, MET program coordinator, all the plates together bring in more than $1 million a year, which in turn funds more than 150 state, nonprofit and educational environmental organizations. One of the largest recipients of funds is the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, the only state organization licensed to rescue whales from entanglements.
While some states mandate that plate proceeds go directly towards the protection of endangered and threatened species or ecosystems, others distribute the money to more general conservation agencies, which may fund anything from highway clean-up to hunting programs.