Schwaab's turn to feel political ax

OUTDOORS

Outdoors

March 23, 2003|By CANDUS THOMSON

So this is the new and improved DNR. The non-political DNR. The science-based DNR.

And I'm the Orioles' new clean-up hitter.

From the second Lt. Gov. Michael Steele said in his November victory speech that watermen and farmers wouldn't have to worry anymore, it was only a matter of time before the first shoe dropped at the Department of Natural Resources.

Now so many shoes have dropped that it sounds like a centipede convention.

The latest casualty is Eric Schwaab, the head of fisheries, who was fired March 14, just hours after DNR relaxed crabbing regulations to make good on Steele's promise.

It was Schwaab who had helped craft the original crabbing regulations designed to protect the dwindling population in the Chesapeake Bay, regulations ordered up by his boss, then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

See where this is going?

Many watermen detested Schwaab and didn't hide their feelings. Often, their priorities conflict with those of people who fish for sport rather than to make a living. Eager to get the upper hand, watermen said they couldn't wait for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich to lower the post-election boom.

But first, the new administration had to prune some higher limbs before it could get to the lower-hanging fruit. Secretary Chuck Fox and deputy Karen White along with assistant secretary Carolyn Watson were fired, understandable moves because all three had actively worked for Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's campaign. But the pruning shears wielded by the "non-political" arm of the Ehrlich administration also removed two assistant secretaries who had no partisan bent.

Schwaab emerged from that housecleaning unscathed, and his supporters in the conservation and recreational angling community thought he might survive.

Then -- surprise, surprise -- the Ehrlich administration tapped Pete Jensen to be the new deputy secretary under Ron Franks. Jensen was chummy with the watermen and had been Schwaab's deputy until he was fired in April 2001 by Glendening.

Jensen and Schwaab never exchanged Christmas cards, if you get my drift.

So Schwaab was odd man out. Never mind that he had done a good job running the fisheries service. Forget that he was respected by his peers from other states and was trusted by recreational anglers. Or that he had handled the northern snakehead invasion -- and the attending media horde -- last summer with evenhandedness, grace and humor.

And let's overlook the fact that he genuinely liked the job and didn't mind the long hours and travel that came with it.

It seems that when there are election night promises in the balance and scores to be settled, integrity goes out the window.

Last week, watermen cheered during the announcement of the new crab catch regulations that reduced the minimum size (based on detailed scientific data compiled since November, I'm sure).

Del. Ken Schisler, an Eastern Shore Republican, said the crab population "is nowhere even close to collapse."

Maybe he can explain why tackle shops haven't been selling much crabbing gear the past two years. It couldn't be because crabbers know there's not much to catch, could it?

DNR officials were classless in using Schwaab as window dressing at the news conference announcing the gutting of the very regulations he championed. To make matters worse, they went on to jettison him three hours later.

People who know Secretary Ron Franks -- me included -- have a hard time believing the genial gentleman from Grasonville was the architect of the crude beheading. The same skeptics also have a very hard time believing that Jensen was Franks' choice.

Yet, Franks was tone deaf Monday night at a meeting of the Sport Fisheries Advisory Commission.

Although the Schwaab firing was on everybody's mind, Franks would only say, "There's always a period of adjustment," before he excused himself because of a dinner engagement.

Of course, commission members showed a distinct lack of intestinal fortitude in not asking Franks how the firing would affect the fisheries service or voicing any concern, dismay or support for Schwaab.

After Franks left, it was Howard King, Schwaab's temporary and most likely permanent replacement, who had to poke the mute commission into a brief discussion of the matter.

It was only after the meeting, when asked point-blank for their comments, that members said nice things about Schwaab.

What are other DNR biologists supposed to think when the group that represents a large segment of the fishing population doesn't even wonder what it all means? And don't think they didn't notice.

Perhaps that great outdoors philosopher Johann Sebastian Bach best summed up the commission's stand in his hit tune "Sheep May Safely Graze."

Or perhaps a better title might be "Silence of the Lambs."

It wasn't very long ago that the anti-hunting Glendening administration fired or muzzled the biologists in the Wildlife and Heritage Service. The firing of Schwaab sends the same message to the fisheries folks.

Every fisheries biologist I talked to over the past several days used a variation of "hunkered down" to describe colleagues. Which one of them is going to offer a recommendation to a superior without first sticking his or her finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing?

So, how many blue crabs does it take to sustain the bay population?

Dammed if I know. Dammed if Schisler knows. Dammed if DNR knows.

So much for science. So much for taking politics out of natural resources management.

Meet the new DNR, same as the old DNR.

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