DNR opposition has tough time focusing

ON THE OUTDOORS

Jumping the gun

Outdoors

March 10, 2002|By CANDUS THOMSON

The great insurrection is over. And like everything else involving the Department of Natural Resources, only half of the people are happy.

The House Environmental Matters Committee held a hearing Friday in Annapolis on two bills that would have drastically altered the agency.

One (HB 331) would have created a separate entity to manage freshwater fisheries. The other (HB 664) would have put the freshwater fisheries and hunting functions together under the supervision of a nine-member commission appointed by the governor.

One thing is certain: Unless Gov. Parris N. Glendening finds a constitutional loophole that allows him to serve past this year, he won't find these babies on his desk awaiting his signature. Nor should he see them.

Although the 47 speakers at the hearing were almost evenly divided on the issue, one side had something to say and the other side didn't. The folks who have a beef with the current DNR hierarchy never got out of the batter's box.

It's never a good thing when the sponsor of a bill kicks off the testimony by finding problems with his own handiwork. But Del. Kenneth Schisler did just that during his explanation of HB 331 and how his proposed commission would be administered.

Let's see, was that a charter boat captain, two watermen, two anglers and some scientists running the show? Or was it three anglers, a tackle shop owner and a Ravens linebacker? Or was it ... oh, never mind.

Plowing ahead, Schisler went on to complain about DNR in that vague way a child uses to fake sickness to get out of school. His bottom line was, essentially, "DNR has been mean to my constituents."

But the Easton Republican failed to offer specific examples, admitted what he was asking for "is not a panacea" and ended by saying that with just 35 days left in the session and the state budget still up in the air it was unrealistic to think the bill would pass.

So much for the leadoff hitter.

The big bat in the lineup and sponsor of HB 664, Speaker Casper Taylor Jr., had gone home sick.

Steve Palmer, chairman of the new Maryland Coalition for Responsible Wildlife Management, didn't help the cause by declaring, "The general public has lost all trust" in DNR's ability to manage wildlife.

That's overstating things a tad. Chuck Fox, Redd Foxx, Michael J. Fox - no disrespect to the agency head, but most Marylanders don't know which one runs DNR. And there's probably a sizable number who couldn't tell you what DNR stands for even if you spotted them the first word.

Next up at the hearing was Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, who concluded his testimony, by saying, "We don't know if this is the answer."

Next.

Unfortunately, I'm here to report, that's as good as it got.

Bruno Vasta, the president of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfisherman's Association, summed things up this way: "The creation of a commission to solve a not-as-yet articulated problem is not wise."

Or, to put it as Jim Gracie did at the hearing, "I don't believe giving this governor nine more patronage jobs is the answer."

Do supporters of the two bills have some legitimate fears about the future of wildlife management based on DNR's track record? Absolutely. The revolving management door and the under-funding of programs has been atrocious.

Those things make it hard to urge a guy like Palmer, who puts a lot of his time and money into teaching outdoors skills, to sit tight and see if Chuck Fox is as good as he appears to be or if he's just the latest rent-a-secretary.

Fox has had the job just six months, but so far his decisions appear thoughtful and reasonable. Not one person at the hearing beefed about his actions.

I know I sure wouldn't want Fox's job, refereeing disputes between commercial and recreational anglers, hunters and non-hunters, Western Marylanders and everyone else.

Brian O'Hare, a member of the Coastal Conservation Association, likened DNR's role to that of the Federal Reserve Board, which makes "tough love" decisions on interest rates that are unpopular with borrowers and lenders, but are necessary for a healthy economy. But the Fed, unlike DNR, cannot have its decisions overturned.

"The system here is undermined by groups running to the legislature for relief. There has to be some finality," O'Hare said.

Fox testified, but said he came mostly to listen. And he said he didn't hear any concrete complaints "that I can get my hands around."

Afterward, Fox said it doesn't make "ecological sense" to separate wildlife management from land protection and management issues, since a decision on one often has an impact on the other.

"I heard there's a lot of frustration," he said. "But I have not heard compelling arguments that the department has not made science-based decisions. Since I've gotten here, there's been no political interference, nor do I expect any.

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