Natural Resources' 'Sad Day' Not Over Yet

ON THE OUTDOORS

July 26, 2009|By CANDUS THOMSON | CANDUS THOMSON,candy.thomson@baltsun.com

Told to cut $2.2 million from his budget to help the state balance its fiscal ledger, the head of the Department of Natural Resources last week gave pink slips to 20 of his staff and cut 3.5 unfilled jobs.

DNR Secretary John Griffin called it "a very, very sad day," one he had "tried hard to avoid."

That's the short version of what happened at DNR. It's a story that mirrors what has been happening around the country, in factories, stores and office buildings, for months now. It was just a matter of time.

Griffin said he took into account DNR's core mission when he made his recommendations on where to cut to the O'Malley administration, "and we got to the point where we had to impact the employees."

Let go were 11 employees at DNR headquarters, one in Baltimore, one in Western Maryland, five in Southern Maryland and two on the Eastern Shore. Of those, four were in the Fisheries Service and two were employed in the Wildlife and Heritage Service.

Of the $280 million cut from the state budget, just 4.2 percent came from DNR.

That doesn't make it any easier for those who must now look for work or for the remaining employees who have to say goodbye to colleagues and pick up the slack at an agency that seems to get more and more dumped on its plate. It also is a downer for those of us who rely on DNR to protect our investment in natural resources: the dirt, the trees, the water and the critters.

Since the 1990s, it seems like the tiny agency has taken more than its share of the budget lumps handed down by administrations, Democratic and Republican. And indeed, Griffin and his deputy, Eric Schwaab - both DNR veterans - agree that it has been hard for DNR to regain what it has lost over two decades.

The staffing problem will become more acute as many DNR employees (average age 47) retire over the next five years. During that period, about one-third of DNR employees will be eligible to retire, and the Natural Resources Police retirement program forecasts losing 10-12 officers a year in addition to regular attrition.

Still, Griffin said, "I didn't have much of a choice," when it came to figuring out where to make cuts.

It's easy to see why. If you keep cutting the "nonhuman parts" of your budget, pretty soon you have state employees sitting around without the money and tools to do their jobs. And paying salaries to idle workers is the best way to bring down the wrath of the people and their elected representatives.

Instead, it appears Griffin made layoff decisions based not on who people were but on what they did.

Given the emotional and physical turmoil at DNR, it's hard to believe much work got done last week. But based on a quick sweep of the landscape, here's what happened:

* Planners continued work on blueprints for the 4,478 acres in Cecil, Charles and St. Mary's counties purchased in January with Program Open Space money. Nineteen miles of prime waterfront land adjacent to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries will be protected from development while paddling, waterfowl hunting and fishing opportunities will increase.

* Bear biologists carried out important field studies in Western Maryland to keep an accurate count of the state's bruins and the health of the population.

* Natural Resources Police officers chased down drunks and idiots and poachers who ruin the outdoors experience for the rest of us.

* At-risk Baltimore youngsters who are part of the Civic Justice Corps continued a summer's worth of tree planting, trail building and outdoors-skills honing to improve state parks and themselves.

* Fisheries scientists pursued clues to unravel the mystery of the recent massive fish kill on the Potomac River after four bass fishing tournaments and offered up safeguards to prevent a repeat.

* State parks were full of day-trippers and campers, who made their vacation dollars go further by staying close to home.

* Waterfowl biologists who helped conduct the spring breeding survey in Canada worked on the framework for season lengths and bag limits in preparation for a public meeting at 7 p.m. on Aug. 17 at Chesapeake College.

That's the good news. The bad news is the budget cutting isn't done. The O'Malley administration has to find an additional $470 million in reductions over the next few weeks and perhaps as much as $1.3 billion next year.

Griffin has been given a number for the next cut, but he won't say what it is.

What he will say, however, is enough to darken any outdoors enthusiast's day: "I can't imagine there's not going to be some more bad news."

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