Organizations fly into action to try to save NRP helicopters


March 01, 2009|By CANDUS THOMSON

Sorry to be such a nag about this, but obviously we've struck a nerve.

And if Sen. John McCain and President Barack Obama can discuss the cost of helicopters - specifically Marine One - while the fate of the economic world hangs in the balance, so can we.

Besides, this is about us.

As state lawmakers continue to craft next year's budget, outdoors groups around the state are crafting their appeals to save the Natural Resources Police aviation unit.

Seven outdoors organizations have sent an appeal to the governor to save the two helicopters, two pilots and one mechanic. Coastal Conservation Association Maryland is using its Web site to let members send e-mails to lawmakers. And the Wildlife Advisory Commission - a nine-member panel appointed by the governor - has issued a separate plea.

"This campaign has been like nothing I have ever seen," says Jeff Plummer, president of the Maryland Waterfowler's Association and member of the governor's advisory commission.

The letter calls the decision to eliminate the aviation unit "penny-wise and pound-foolish."

"We have agreed to increased costs to hunt and fish, to register our boats, and to hunt in state parks," the letter says. "We have endured a closure on rockfish, and a Canada goose moratorium to ensure the species could recover. Our volunteers have spent thousands of hours, and raised millions of dollars to protect the wild space of Maryland. We view this not as a chore but our responsibility as stewards of the land and waters of Maryland."

It notes the decreasing number of NRP resources and the rising level of crime, and concludes, "We ask that you reconsider eliminating the NRP helicopter from the budget and follow through on the commitments we so often hear during your campaigns and time in office about protecting and preserving the wild things that make Maryland so special."

In addition to Plummer, the letter is signed by Wendy Donahoo, president of the Maryland Sportsmen's Association; Dave Smith, associate executive director of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association; Tyler Johnson, head of the Maryland Outfitters and Guides Association; Ron Leggett, president of the Maryland Fur Trappers Inc.; Lou Compton, president of the Maryland Bowhunters Society; and George Wooden, chairman of the Upper Chesapeake Chapter of Delta Waterfowl.

CCA Maryland notes that the plan to use State Police helicopters to fly NRP missions will actually cost more - as much as $1.8 million annually - because it costs about $1,500 an hour for NRP to fly versus $4,500 to fly the same mission with a larger state police helicopter.

"That is wasteful in tight economic times and leads one to wonder whether natural resources cases might receive less attention than they require," the CCA letter says.

The total annual operating cost of the aviation unit is $650,000. But when you eliminate $200,000 in federal money that goes to the unit and the $317,000 in salary and benefits that still have to be paid to the men who will transferred someplace else, we're really talking about $133,000.

That's, like, a day of poaching striped bass on the Chesapeake Bay. Or the annual take from a couple of slot machines at Arundel Mills. Or the cost of hiring O'Malley's March to play in your family room for a month of Saturdays.

We could go around and around on this - these are, after all, aircraft nicknamed whirlybirds - but if the O'Malley people would just be sensible and find the pocket change to save the aviation unit, we could all go back to worrying about A-Rod and Ray Lewis.

Fishing is a billion-dollar business in Maryland. Deer hunting generates more than $40 million in retail sales. If there's a bright side to this mess, it's that the outdoors community is once again flexing its fiscal and political muscles.

"I know of no other time all of the groups on our letter have joined in to sponsor such a letter," Plummer says. "There is now talk of an annual summit to pool our numbers and get the DNR back on the fiscal radar of state government."

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