The future is drifting away from DNR

January 28, 2007|By CANDUS THOMSON

In his final message to the state's outdoors lovers, departed Department of Natural Resources Secretary Ron Franks declared: "All in all, I'd say 2006 shaped up to be a pretty good year for Maryland's natural resources."

The good dentist from the Eastern Shore must have been snorting laughing gas when he penned that one for the winter edition of his agency's magazine.

Because about the same time Franks was chirping a happy tune for public consumption, his staff was telling the Martin O'Malley transition team what the Department of Legislative Services had already concluded: DNR is an "agency in decline."

The 42-page report goes through each of DNR's 14 units, listing accomplishments - which are many - and the level of deterioration under Franks' phone-it-in management.

DNR needs cash, and fast.

Granted, lots of worthy state and local programs are begging the new governor and legislature for more money.

But we have only one place to hang our hats. If we keep fouling Maryland's nest of 450,000 acres of public land, you can be darn sure we won't be getting replacement dirt anytime soon.

What elected officials do about this situation will say a lot about their stewardship of this little slice of planet Earth. What you do about it will say a lot about your commitment.

Here are the lowlights of the transition report:

In fiscal year 2002, DNR had 1,618 positions and $75 million in general funds appropriated by state lawmakers. This year, it has 250 fewer people and $400,000 less financial support.

The report says: "If DNR does not receive general fund support in [fiscal year] 2008 of an additional $4 million, the agency will have no choice but to shutter parks, reduce Natural Resources Police, and layoff staff in the Parks, Wildlife and Forestry unit."

Because former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s team required DNR to reduce staff while maintaining programs, the agency spent down its reserve funds, causing a "structural imbalance of approximately $10 million ... if the $10 million hole is not resolved, the Fisheries Service will also require layoffs, and substantial further reductions to the Natural Resources Police will be necessary."

To oversee 1,368 people and $74.6 million, Franks had four assistant secretaries. (By contrast, the Department of Transportation secretary had 9,000 employees, an operating budget of more than $1 billion, and two assistant secretaries).

During the Ehrlich administration, the Fisheries Service saw 24 percent of its full-time work force cut and 82 percent of its contractual positions slashed. "Sadly," the report says, "federal funds have been lost due to the inability to hire staff to conduct work that had previously been conducted and has now lapsed."

About 33 percent of DNR's work force will be eligible to retire over the next five years, taking with them a treasure trove of institutional memory. Perhaps most disturbing is that a quarter of the remaining Fisheries Service could walk out the door by 2011.

The Wildlife and Heritage Service, responsible for managing all the state's critters, has seen a 97 percent decrease in money approved by the legislature from 2003 to this year. That means the service is 99 percent dependent on money received from the sale of hunting licenses and federal funds generated by taxes on the sale of outdoors gear.

The fees to enter the 79 state parks are "the highest in the nation," but parks managers "are continually contacted for discounts or fee use by elected officials and others with influence over the department."

Funding and staffing deficiencies at state parks have resulted in unregulated all-terrain vehicles chewing up the land, disorderly campers disrupting other users, vandalism and theft of state property. "Many of the state's attractions are now not acceptably presentable," the report says.

The backlog of "critical maintenance projects" at DNR is $26 million and growing by $3 million annually. Even if the agency gets the money, it doesn't have the staff to do the work.

The Critical Area Program, established to minimize the impact of storm runoff and conserve bay and coastal habitat, has lost 60 percent of the funding earmarked to help Baltimore City and 46 municipalities enforce the law.

Reaching Maryland's goal of planting 2,030 miles of forest buffer along waterways by 2010 to reduce runoff "will be very difficult. ... The cost-sharing programs have been altered to reduce incentives, and increased land values make it difficult to convince landowners to participate in a long-term conservation program."

The state goal of restoring 110,000 acres of submerged aquatic vegetation to filter Chesapeake and coastal bay waters is 40 percent complete and increasing, "but not at a rate sufficient to meet the goal," even with the help of 3,000 student volunteers.

"Boating title, licensing and registration fees have remained unchanged for decades and have not kept pace with costs."

From 2002 to 2006, the Forestry Service budget was cut 27 percent, and the number of employees was cut 32 percent. Some bookkeeping sleight of hand makes it look like the service got a big budget boost, but it really didn't. Staffing shortages have created "continual difficulty in accomplishing routine road and facilities maintenance, boundary maintenance, forest harvest, visitor services and recreational management."

That's all the big stuff. Pretty grim, eh?

If you use state parks (there were about 12 million visitors last year), walk state forests and wetlands for bird watching, fish, hunt, paddle or bike, you need to voice your concern to your delegates and state senators.

You can see who your state lawmakers are and send them an e-mail by going to mlis.state.md.us

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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