Fox moving quickly on DNR hot seat



October 21, 2001|By CANDUS THOMSON

Back in my days as a radio news gal, a new owner would come into the station about once a year, announce how thrilled he was to have acquired such a fine property and assure one and all "that no changes are anticipated."

The next sound was that of the copying machine moaning to life as announcers and sales people ran off copies of their resume.

Charles "Chuck" Fox showed up at the Department of Natural Resources last month to run the place and issued no such assurances. But by all accounts, the tired copy machines in that weary agency have remained silent.

Not that Fox has been quiet. Since his arrival, the new head ranger (secretary is such a silly title where the outdoors is concerned) has accepted retirement papers from the No. 2 man, promoted a pro to handle the hunting part of the department, approved the long-overdue reorganization of the forestry and wildlife management staff, and sent out a memo reminding everyone of their ethical obligations and to be "open and transparent" in dealings with the public and press.

Oh, yeah, and he has lifted the ban on hunting migratory geese.

I don't know if he does windows, but I do know he hasn't hung all the pictures in his corner office yet.

Fox was an assistant administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who became a policy adviser at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

It's too early to tell if his administration will be more effective than the one presided over by Sarah Taylor-Rogers, who was unceremoniously dumped by the soon-to-be lame-duck governor. Taylor-Rogers is a nice person, but watching her administration was like pondering a broken washing machine with no agitation.

While the "Fox limited edition" DNR may have a peppier engine than the old STR model, don't expect the new guy to declare a revolving "Hunt-a-Species Week," with the animal chosen by a wheel-turning Vanna White. Nor should anyone think a black bear season is just around the corner.

Green rather than game remains the theme.

In a chat last week, Fox said he has three priorities: protecting the Chesapeake Bay, preserving land and fostering the governor's Smart Growth policy.

"I don't want to belittle wildlife and forestry, but we can't accomplish everything," he said. "We can't have 10 priorities, because then you don't have priorities."

Fox acknowledged the strained relationship between the traditional outdoors community and DNR, with hunters especially suspicious of the motives of the Glendening administration.

Fox promised that hunters and fishermen will be at the table during the decision-making process, and he has already met with representatives from the Maryland Sportsmen's Association and the Maryland Aquatic Resources Council.

He insisted that his decisions on fishing and hunting will be based on scientific information and "what is best for the species" and not "appeasing this group or that group."

"I will be supporting and endorsing the decisions made by Paul [Peditto] and Carolyn [Watson]," he said of his two deputies in the wildlife program.

Peditto is a winner, and by all accounts, it was Watson, the much-maligned assistant secretary (ranger?), who chose him to replace Mike Slattery as wildlife manager. Although popular with the hunting crowd, Slattery was forced out when the administration believed he had stopped being a team player.

Rounding out the new team is Fox's new No. 2, Karen White, a savvy political operative from the lieutenant governor's office.

Fox will need a good team if he is to master one of DNR's most interesting challenges in the final 14 months of the Glendening administration: how to use the 58,000 acres bought by the state in 1999 from Chesapeake Forest Products Co.

The property, spread over the lower Eastern Shore, is prime timber land that has been leased by private hunting clubs for decades. The clubs are hoping to continue those agreements. Other groups - hikers, paddlers and birders - see opportunities, as well.

DNR held meetings with the hunting clubs last year, but the selection of an advisory committee to take public comment languished on the desk of a mid-level manager for months.

Fox said the makeup of that committee will be announced soon. The public comment and recommendation process is expected to take 18 months, which means Fox is laying the groundwork for the next administration.

Deciding how to use prime land like this is a situation ripe for suspicion, backbiting and hurt feelings. Throw in the potential for grandstanding by lawmakers, and DNR will have its hands full.

Fox realizes this. "Whenever you try to manage resources for everyone, you realize how difficult that is," he said. "As the population grows and becomes more diverse, outdoor opportunities expand."

Hunting black bear may not be one of them because there is little chance of a season being established in Western Maryland anytime soon. Fox said the bruin population is, at best, in the mid-300s, "and that doesn't immediately to me endorse a bear-hunting season. But we will see."

Trappers won't have to worry next legislative session, as they did this year, about a DNR-generated bill to regulate their activities. Fox said flatly, "There will be no trapping bill from us."

Over the next several months, Fox said he'll be working on the budget and getting his legislative priorities in order. He's also lifting a yearlong hiring freeze so that managers can begin to fill 50 or so vacancies.

He also admits DNR "has a lot of morale issues" that will have to be addressed.

At the very least, the agency will be able to order stationery secure in the knowledge that the names at the top won't be changing for a while. And perhaps management stability means DNR will stop resembling the Cold War Kremlin on May Day, when the game was always to guess who would be in the line of waving leaders and who had vanished "to pursue other opportunities."

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