Placing NRP with state police risky Federal funds, safety at stake


February 02, 1993|By PETER BAKER

On Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee of the General Assembly is scheduled to hear House Bill 133, a measure that is in need of public attention -- not to ensure its approval, but to guarantee its rejection.

In general terms, H.B. 133 would incorporate the Natural Resources Police into the Maryland State Police, making the 230 NRP officers an arm of the state police, which has 2,500 officers.

Traditionally, the NRP -- operating as an arm of the Department of Natural Resources -- has enforced regulations that promote conservation and the safety of hunters, fishermen, boaters and other outdoorsmen.

The purpose of the consolidation is a projected 20 percent reduction in the money from the state's general fund allocated to TC the two police agencies. But it may be a budget-cutting measure that turns out to cost more than it saves -- in lives and hard-won gains in wildlife and fisheries conservation.

First and foremost is the matter of money, both federal and state.

The NRP receives about $850,000 a year from the sale of fishing licenses in Maryland, for fisheries enforcement. The DNR receives $2.5 million from the federal government under the Wallopp-Breaux Act, with the proviso that no revenues from the sale of fresh or saltwater fishing licenses be transferred out of Maryland fisheries programs.

According to an administrative source in the DNR, that $850,000 would be forfeited by the NRP if it was absorbed by the state police -- or the state's fisheries programs would lose $2.5 million in Wallopp-Breaux money.

Somehow, this is robbing Peter and then not being able to pay Paul.

Currently, DNR is able to distribute officers of Inland and Marine divisions according to the needs of the season.

For example, during the spring and fall rockfish seasons, there is increased emphasis on tidewater enforcement to ensure that the gains made during the past 10 years are not wiped away by overzealous fishermen.

According to NRP statistics, 43 percent of tidal fishing violations in 1992 involved rockfish.

During waterfowl seasons, there is increased emphasis in the tidal marshes and backwaters to ensure that ducks and geese have a chance to increase the minimal gains made recently. Among 232 waterfowl hunting incident reports last year, closed-season violations were most common.

In deer season, more manpower is directed toward the labor-intensive efforts of trying to stop spot-lighting, other forms of poaching and unauthorized hunting on private lands.

Ninety percent of hunting in the state occurs on private lands, and trespassing was, by far, the leading incident reported among 1,018 hunting violations last year.

When the waters of the bay and its tributaries are crowded with boaters, additional emphasis may be placed on boater safety. NRP responded to 2,829 boating incidents last year, of which almost 300 involved disabled boats or boaters in distress.

With the NRP working closely with the DNR, these changes in the focus of enforcement have been made quickly and efficiently.

Will the same be possible if such changes must first be orchestrated with the needs of the state police?

"It makes you wonder what would happen on a holiday weekend, like Thanksgiving, when deer firearms season opens," said one highly placed official with DNR. "Where will the manpower be? On the state highways or in with the deer hunters trying to keep some sort of order?"

Another DNR official expressed concern over marine safety.

"I don't want to predict disaster," he said, "but think of the summer weekends when the bay and rivers are full of water skiers, fishermen, personal watercraft and speedboats. Without a presence of enforcement, people could run amok.

"Will the state police understand the problems?"

NRP officers have been trained to understand the problems and to solve them. They are teachers as well as inspectors and law officers.

The NRP is a specialized branch of enforcement. Hunter and boating safety education plans are run by volunteers in the state to standards approved by the NRP.

When a boat is stolen, an NRP officer responds and investigates. When a boater drowns or a hunter is wounded or killed, an NRP officer responds and investigates. When a seafood processor is suspected of illegal purchase or transport of rockfish, the NRP plays a major part in the investigation, often alongside federal agencies.

In 48 of the 50 states, the agencies that enforce regulations that govern hunters and fishermen and conserve fish and wildlife work directly under organizations such as the Department of Natural Resources.

In Alaska and Oregon, similar enforcement agencies work independently of both the state police and the departments of fish and game.

"We are empowered with all the responsibilities of the Maryland State Police, and when necessary we respond to drunken drivers, muggers and all the things the MSP does," said one NRP officer.

"But we also have expertise and equipment that makes us especially capable of responding to problems on the water or in the field."

There are upward of 500,000 fishermen in Maryland and close to 200,000 hunters.

There are many, many more people who enjoy Maryland wildlife while they hike, jog, walk, camp, boat or sail.

All are deserving of an efficient regulatory force dedicated to guaranteeing the well-being of themselves and the wildlife they enjoy.

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