DNR budget cuts: dollars, but little sense


March 04, 2007|By CANDUS THOMSON

With a nod to the Academy Awards, the new head of the Department of Natural Resources warned state lawmakers Monday that he was about to tell them "an inconvenient truth" about the state of his agency.

You already know what members of the House Appropriations Committee learned from John Griffin: DNR doesn't have two nickels to rub together, and if it had the coins, it would barely have the staff to do the rubbing.

The dire manpower and money problems were highlighted in a transition report drafted late last year and first reported here in January. DNR has lost 15 percent of its staff and depleted its special funds. Without an emergency infusion of $4.5 million, it will have to lay off staff (including police officers), close parks and eliminate research.

Two weeks ago, when a TV type tried to get the ex-governor's minions to respond to the report, they dismissed the findings as "false" and "as partisan as they come."

Except the Ehrlich administration drafted the report.

"Facts," as Ronald Reagan once observed, "are stupid things."

It might be funny except that analysts for the House committee are looking to further cut the agency's Jack Sprat budget in ways that will hurt the very environment the O'Malley administration has promised to protect.

Take, for example, the budgeteers' recommendation to cut a $171,497 request to pay for the much-awaited menhaden study.

Maryland recreational anglers and conservationists led the charge last year to protect the tiny fish that filters Chesapeake Bay waters and feeds striped bass and other species. Hundreds, if not thousands, of regular folks set a fire under the posteriors of elected officials who, in turn, shamed Virginia into supporting a five-year cap on commercial menhaden netting so the declining population could be studied.

That research is under way. But who's going to pay the bill if the folks with the checkbook won't open it?

"I was surprised," said Ken Lewis of Coastal Conservation Association Maryland when we met in the hall after the hearing. "This could have slipped under the radar. If we back out, the whole thing could collapse."

But wait, there's more.

The budgeteers also recommended cutting $114,955 that DNR requested to convert to digital format the 35-year-old paper maps used by the Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas folks and make them available online.

Short of hiring eye-in-the-sky dirt cops, there isn't a better way to police shoreline development than having accurate maps showing where stuff is and isn't supposed to be built.

Finally, the sharp pencils recommended cutting $267,622 from a pilot project to study the Corsica River watershed as part of the larger Chesapeake Bay restoration effort. If that happens, you can forget about stream buffers, wetlands and runoff reduction studies.

Shifting money from other DNR accounts to these projects would be like robbing bankrupt Peter to pay overextended Paul.

"We're moving gradually into a bigger and bigger hole," Griffin told the lawmakers.

After Griffin's briefing, the chairwoman of the environment subcommittee, Del. Tawanna Gaines, said, "I think we're all depressed now," and promised to talk with DNR officials before taking action.

Lewis, CCA's government affairs chairman, said there's still time to get the Appropriations Committee to restore the menhaden money and other cuts.

"The legislature tends to think of DNR as self-serving," he explained. "It would be much better if the public stood up and contacted their representatives to make the point."

The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee is Del. Norman Conway. His e-mail address is: norman.conway @house.state.md.us .

Gaines, the chairwoman of the environment subcommittee, can be reached at: tawanna.gaines @house.state.md.us.

Too busy? Move on

After seven years of watching the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission operate, one thing is clear: It needs an overhaul, starting with the people appointed to it.

The staff is professional and hard-working. But you can't expect something to function well if people chosen to manage Eastern Seaboard fish species don't show up and don't read the reports. In fact, there have been occasions - including a critical vote last year on Maryland's spring striped bass season - when better than half the people at the table were stand-ins.

According to commission staff, there are three kinds of proxies: "meeting-specific" fill-ins, "on-going" seat fillers, and "permanent" replacements.

Each of the 15 states on the commission is represented by the director for fisheries management agency, an individual appointed by the governor and a state legislator. In Maryland's case, the representatives are Fisheries Service Chief Howard King, charter boat Capt. Bruno Vasta and state Sen. Richard Colburn. States cast a single vote.

But from February 2003 through November last year, Colburn attended just one function: the October 2005 annual meeting, according to ASMFC records.

Colburn, who was appointed in 2002, has said his legislative duties and position as town manager of Federalsburg on the Eastern Shore prevent him from attending ASMFC meetings.

I realize that attending all the meetings and reading all the material takes up a lot of time. But why accept the appointment if you're too busy to serve?

Luckily, Colburn's proxy, waterman Russell Dize, is an intellectual upgrade from the senator, who withdrew from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore two years ago after a former aide showed university officials the drafts of five term papers he said he ghost-wrote for Colburn.

In June, Maryland will be filling the seat held by Vasta. Whispers are Bill Goldsborough, a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a former ASMFC member, will get the nod.

It's time to replace Colburn with a lawmaker who will take the job of managing fisheries seriously. Heck, it's not like the good senator would miss the job.

Candidates, anyone?


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