For state, unit's funding won't fly

ON THE OUTDOORS

January 25, 2009|By CANDUS THOMSON

If you take a walk along Baltimore's waterfront out where the Downtown Sailing Center keeps its boats and the Spirit of Philadelphia tourist boat is tied up for repairs, you might notice a huge rusted hulk, bow jutting up and midships filled with water.

It's the shell of the Governor R.M. McLane, once the flagship steamer of the Maryland Oyster Police, the forerunner of today's Natural Resources Police. Established by the General Assembly on March 30, 1868, NRP is the state's oldest law enforcement agency.

State lawmakers set the force at 50 men but didn't appropriate enough money to run the patrol boats, leading the first commander to complain, "It is impossible with my current force to police an area that ranges from Swan Point, Kent County, down to the Potomac and upriver 125 miles."

FOR THE RECORD - The outdoors column in Sunday's edition incorrectly stated the annual budget for the Natural Resources Police aviation unit. It is about $600,000, according to Department of Natural Resources officials.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

Times haven't changed much, as you'll soon read.

A New York Times dispatch from that era reports breathlessly of "piratical oyster crews" and "desperadoes very free with their firearms" who showered an oyster police boat and a judge's house with bullets.

Bad press forced lawmakers to pony up. In 1884, the McLane, with a 12-pound howitzer affixed to its deck, was launched to quell the "oyster wars" that pitted waterman against waterman in the scramble to haul as many oysters to market as possible.

Obviously, things settled down, and after a stint as a World War I patrol boat, the McLane finished its state duties, was replaced by gas-powered vessels and retired. A salvage company bought the steamer in the 1950s and stripped it down to the deck before abandoning the project.

That brings us to the present-day quagmire of NRP and this question: How come the 2010 budget proposal of his near-excellency, the governor, includes $40 million for the State Police to buy two new helicopters and nothing to keep NRP's aviation unit airborne?

Not to take anything away from the mission of the troopers, but the fish and game cops deserve some support here and now. No lip service. No temporary reprieves like the one in October.

We're talking about two helicopters - really old ones at that - two pilots and a mechanic. The "squadron" consists of a 1970 Army surplus chopper and a 1972 Bell Jet Ranger with 14,000 hours of flight time - a hand-me-down from State Police when it bought new birds in 1989, the same helicopters it calls "aging" now.

Total annual price tag for the aviation unit: $100,000.

Martin O'Malley says he cares about natural resources. I take him at his word. The bottom of every Department of Natural Resources news release contains this statement: "DNR manages more than 449,000 acres of public lands and 17,000 miles of waterways, along with Maryland's forests, fisheries, and wildlife for maximum environmental, economic and quality of life benefits."

But how do you protect those resources - which taxpayers have purchased and maintained - without the guys and gals of NRP? That's like buying a new car and leaving the keys on the dashboard.

State parks employees whisper that there are places they won't go alone - and knowing a few of those spots, I don't blame them. Officers who patrol the water and woods know backup is often hours away, if at all. The list of places NRP must protect keeps growing.

In 1990, NRP had 451 officers. Now, it's about 250 officers. Pitiful.

That's what makes the aviation unit more important than ever. Two months ago, Col. George Johnson, the NRP superintendent, called the helicopters "a force multiplier" that allows fewer people to cover more territory. Having eyes in the sky provides backup, protects boaters and speeds searches for lost hunters and hikers.

In November, NRP nabbed an illegal crabber in Anne Arundel County with help from the aviation unit. In December, it was a deer poacher in southern Maryland. The aviation unit helps out with the annual winter waterfowl survey on the Chesapeake Bay. It has tracked polluters and oil spills. I could go on because the list is extensive and impressive.

The State Police issued a news release Wednesday crowing about its new "multi-mission" helicopter fleet, which will total a dozen in four years when all the purchasing is through. One of those "missions," I'm told, is to replace the NRP aviation unit.

Yeah, right. State Police has always treated NRP as a second-class citizen. Just five years ago while standing outside an Annapolis hearing room waiting for review of a bill to merge NRP with State Police, I listened to troopers disparage fish and game cops as law enforcement "wannabes." Yes, budgets are tight. Seven hundred state workers are headed for unemployment. Tough choices are mandatory, and I'm not talking Miller High Life vs. Stella Artois.

But I find it hard to believe the Annapolis crowd can't find $100,000 to keep NRP flying. And I can't believe the sportsmen and women of Maryland will remain silent and let the aviation unit that protects natural resources crash and burn.

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