State park volunteerism gets black eye

December 15, 2005|By CANDUS THOMSON

Volunteers are supposed to help. They're not supposed to help themselves to our land and our critters.

But that's what has been happening at a few of Maryland's parks. The wheels of change are starting to turn, but why did it take so long? Consider:

Wildlife researchers find one of their radio-collared deer dead and hanging behind the house of a Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area volunteer. The field tag indicates the deer was killed at a time when the telemetry indicates the animal was still alive and mobile.

Another of the researchers' collars has to be retrieved from a Virginia taxidermy studio, where it was to be used on a head mount as a joke.

At Rocks State Park in Harford County, someone - investigators believe it's a volunteer - cut handy ATV trails from private property, ruining a prime bow-hunting site.

At Gunpowder Falls State Park, a makeshift waterfowl blind on the shore of Days Cove is apparently off limits to the public because park personnel and their friends have dibs.

At Susquehanna State Park, the blinds always seem to be reserved. Hunters lucky enough to punch through the obstacles have arrived to find that a "guide" (actually a convicted felon on Harford County's sex offender list) and his clients have invoked squatter's rights. The "guide" is taking commercial parties on public land without a license, yet park officials don't lift a finger to stop him.

Behind the check station at Seneca Creek State Park in Montgomery County, there's a tree stand for the use of park volunteers, who aren't required to jump through the same hoops as regular stiffs to win a spot at the lottery-style managed hunts.

The list goes on.

In rare cases, someone gets his knuckles whacked. A volunteer at a Cecil County wildlife management area was arrested and charged with theft last year after he helped himself to the deer tenderloins as he field-dressed other hunters' kills.

The state park service, an arm of the Department of Natural Resources, is filled with dedicated volunteers who fill the holes left by an ever-decreasing budget. For example, the night before the opening of trout season, volunteers at Patapsco Valley State Park sleep in their cars at the gate off U.S. 1 so that they can unlock it before dawn for eager anglers jockeying for position.

But those unselfish efforts are being mocked by the actions of some greedy volunteers and their state employee enablers.

Park officials excuse away the situation, saying the nearly decade-old practice of preferential treatment is the only "incentive" they have to reward volunteers.

Hogwash. A volunteer, as Mr. Webster defines it, is: "a person who chooses freely to enter into any transaction with no promise of compensation."

Nope, it's not an "incentive." It's Boss Tweed, old-boy cronyism of the first degree. Sadly, these same park officials insist there's nothing wrong.

"We believe that it is well known among all those who would have an interest in participating," parks assistant superintendent Rusty Ruszin wrote in a memo dated Nov. 8. "The bottom line is: This volunteer incentive program is not broken, and is not in need of repair."

What a load of goose poop. For starters, the DNR Web site doesn't allude to the "incentive" program under its volunteer listings. And when I asked 12 veteran hunters supervising recent youth hunts if they knew about the volunteer incentive plan, to a man they had not.

Earth to Rusty: It's broken.

Visitors to state parks last year spent $168.8 million. The laissez-faire attitude of management is no way to protect a proven state money maker and promotional vehicle for the Ehrlich administration's tourism effort.

The parks problem has two deep roots, only one of which is being adequately addressed.

First is an organizational one. The parks division is responsible for hunting activities that would be best handled by the Wildlife and Heritage Service.

DNR assistant secretary Mike Slattery promises that transfer is in the works. Fine. The clock is running.

But that brings us to the second, more vexing, issue. To fill the holes in the understaffed Natural Resources Police, the Ehrlich administration robbed Peter to pay Paul, turning 91 park rangers into cops. Great PR for the State House crowd, who threw a self-congratulatory graduation party this fall.

"We win in terms of increased efficiency. We win in terms of expertise and force of manpower. We win in terms of rapid response to emergencies," Ehrlich reportedly said at the gala.

Win, win, win? Not so fast.

True, NRP got a much-needed infusion of manpower through consolidation. Massive patrol districts in Western Maryland have been carved into more manageable sectors.

But on the other hand, the beefed-up police force has added to its beat 47 state parks and five state forests.

And how many replacement bodies did the park service get? Just 36. No wonder park managers coddle naughty volunteers. At least they're warm bodies.

It makes you wonder where the $168.8 million went.

Former Gov. Marvin Mandel and the commission bearing his name set the wheels in motion for this consolidation mess in the name of government streamlining. And governors past and present partied at the NRP coming-out cotillion like there was nothing wrong.

I guess if you turn the music up loud enough, you can't hear the complaints.

The Annapolis crowd, it seems, is living in a dream world with a sky filled with little smiley faces.

"We made it through the summer with no tremendous difficulties," said Steve McCoy, a top park service official, at a meeting this fall of the Wildlife Advisory Commission. "There are a lot of naysayers who didn't think we'd be here after consolidation."

To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends on your definition of "here."

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