Agency in troubled waters

ON THE BAY

Turmoil: The recent ouster of the chief of fisheries hints at a significant problem in DNR.

March 21, 2003|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IF YOU WONDER whether the Ehrlich administration learned anything from the Maryland Senate's rejection of Lynn Buhl, its environment secretary nominee, look no further than the firing a few days later of Eric Schwaab.

Schwaab, chief of fisheries at the Department of Natural Resources, was dumped just hours after a news conference proposing relaxed rules for commercial crabbing.

It was an issue where Schwaab, a 20-year veteran of DNR, had fought hard in negotiations with the seafood industry - and with some success - to limit the rollback of conservation measures.

Schwaab is not the first good person to go at DNR in recent weeks. But his firing in particular hints at a more significant problem, like who is in charge of the agency - fishing interests or the department's scientists and conservation managers?

It's clear from talking to people close to the Schwaab affair that Ehrlich's new DNR secretary, C. Ronald Franks, wanted to keep his fisheries chief around, but wasn't allowed to.

I know little about Franks, who said he couldn't comment on personnel matters. But the little I've seen of the Queen Anne's county dentist and former GOP legislator, I've liked.

He did a small, but classy thing a few weeks ago when he canceled more pressing business to mingle and speak at a party of mostly Democratic loyalists assembled to say goodbye to departing DNR Secretary J. Charles Fox.

He made it clear that he looked forward to an era of conciliation, and that environmental viewpoints would get a hearing in his department.

But is DNR really to be his department?

Announcement of Franks' nomination was put on hold after commercial fishing interests objected to the secretary's sport fishing ties - he is a member of the Coastal Conservation Association, a moderate group in Maryland but one that has clashed with commercial fishermen elsewhere.

It was surely a first in modern times that watermen, who number no more than 7,000 full-time fishing license holders, were able to block such an appointment. Ehrlich campaigned on a promise to give them more representation on natural resources matters.

The logjam was broken when the administration agreed to appoint William P. "Pete" Jensen as deputy DNR secretary. In Jensen, a former federal and state fisheries administrator, watermen have a skilled or committed advocate.

Indeed, Jensen had been forced out of DNR two years earlier after writing a presentencing letter of support for Danny Beck, a striped bass fisherman from Essex. In a case developed by Jensen's own agency, Beck pleaded guilty to federal charges of taking $40,000 to $70,000 worth of rockfish illegally.

The Beck incident was blatant, but Jensen had for years caused concern among DNR fisheries regulators and Natural Resources Police because of his close ties to watermen.

In the two years since he was forced out, Jensen has testified three times on behalf of watermen who said DNR regulations on crabs, yellow perch and striped bass were too strict.

Jensen could also be selective in picking the science that suited his purposes - and opposing that which didn't.

During the early 1990s at DNR, he produced studies - bogus in retrospect - to argue against restrictions on oystering. They purported to show the bay had nearly the same density of young oysters that it did a century before.

In his latest incarnation, Jensen has made common cause with Eastern Shore Republican legislators who think the science underpinning current crabbing conservation measures is faulty and misleading.

While not perfect, that science is far better than anything fisheries regulators had to rely on in the past. But the legislators, representing watermen, have Ehrlich's ear.

The upshot is that there is real potential for DNR's management of crabs, oysters and fish to shift away from the resource and more toward the resource users.

We needn't go back more than a few years to see the mess made by a DNR fragmented at the top and unclear in its mission.

Sarah Taylor-Rogers, a Glendening appointee to the secretary's job, had a brief and difficult tenure, due in part to a deputy secretary, installed by the administration, who worked at cross purposes and politicized the department.

In an action reminiscent of Schwaab's firing, Michael Slattery, a respected wildlife administrator with DNR, was fired over the head of Taylor-Rogers, creating bad blood throughout the hunting community (Slattery's back now, with a promotion).

Even after the Buhl rejection, Governor Ehrlich doesn't seem to have learned the right lesson.

"I learned that when the president [of the Senate, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. ,] wants to switch some votes [i.e. against Buhl], he can do it," the governor said.

If he thinks this is only about political power, the governor's going to keep on shooting himself in the foot.

His victory in November was obviously a mandate, but it obscured another mandate - to try harder on environmental issues. The Buhl rejection did not begin as a power play by Democrats and the Senate president. It began with people really caring that Maryland's environment remains in good hands.

What is happening at DNR shows our governor still doesn't get it.

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