Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 11, No. 2

January 9-15, 2003

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Restoring DNR Begins with a New Secretary

“There’ll be some changes made.”
— Popular song some years back

Here in Maryland, what with a totally new administration falling into place, we’re in for more changes than in just the weather, me and whatever else that old song promised. Coming up is not only a new man at the helm of state but also a new party in charge.

And, let’s not forget new and different philosophies on how to run a state. Things should be interesting.

Complaints to Go Around
Meanwhile, much of the citizenry probably views reasons behind the impending change in state government as the four fabled blind men did that elephant in India.

Remember? The man who touched the leg thought the elephant was a pillar; the one who felt the stomach figured the pachyderm was a wall, while the third grasped an ear and proclaimed the mammoth was a piece of cloth. The last, whose reach embraced the tail, was sure the creature was a rope.

Basically, that is what we have here in Maryland. The majority obviously wanted a change, and for so many different reasons. Some because the thought of a budget deficit of well over a billion bucks downright frightened them. Others because they tired of a governor telling them what they should and shouldn’t do in their everyday lives. Still others because of his hard-nosed views on smoking. And there were many unhappy with his social programs, his spending priorities, his pettiness in things like turning off Hilda Mae’s fountain at the governor’s mansion for no reason other than to irk former Gov. Don Schaefer.

And there were the outdoorsmen dissatisfied with the governor’s meddling in the Department of Natural Resources; the commercial crabbers up in arms about curtailments in their catches; fishermen and hunters who tired of the administration using DNR as a dumping grounds for discards from the Governor’s Office or to reward political allies who needed a job; still others who grumbled of his gender preferences in promotions within the department. And who on the camping and state park trails could conceal their ire as a once great forests and parks system was financially neglected?

Many were outraged when hunter safety and youth hunting programs were diminished. And, of course, there was the issue of guns. The governor scorned them, did virtually everything possible to keep them out of the hands of the citizens, and his record indicates he wasn’t any more sympathetic to the interests of hunters than he was to those of gun owners.

All of this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Poor Bob
So many different citizens with so many different reasons for voting for a change. Like the blind men in the Buddhist fable, many assume that change in leadership came for the specific reasons that irked or impacted them. They expect satisfaction and remedies. And, they’re impatient.

Poor Bob Ehrlich. Who’d want to be in his shoes? There are so many constituents of the opinion that the part of the elephant they felt deserves utmost priority. He most assuredly realizes by now there are too many people with too many priorities. An awful lot of impatient voters are due to be disappointed.

Poor DNR
Let’s just look at the situation as it affects the Department of Natural Resources and its constituents: those who camp, hunt, fish, trap, crab, boat, hike, get involved in nature or foster conservation and environmental programs. DNR already is operating on thin ice financially. Funds are lacking to fully carry out some important programs; others are behind schedule; still others are shelved.

Much of the Ehrlich support came from the hard-core outdoors community, those who fish, trap, camp, crab, boat, hunt and use guns for other recreational purposes. Among their priorities is funding for programs that will benefit their pursuits. In recent years, they have paid more in fees, licenses, stamps and service as DNR’s share of the state’s fiscal pie has progressively shrunk. They’re paying more, and, not infrequently, getting less.

Yet — as with all other arms of government — how can they get more in these times following the spending binges of an eight-year administration?

There’s no beating around the bush. It’s obvious they can’t. A budgetary deficit of one and a quarter billion bucks is a hell of a lot to cope with, and the most creative of creative financing can’t pull money from an empty hat.

It’s obvious that more cuts are in store for DNR, which of course means more programs will be impacted. Let’s not forget for a minute that historically (certainly in more recent years), when things get tight, the department endures more than its share of curtailments. That’s the nature of the game, and there is no reason to think it will be different this time around, new administration or not.

Tougher Times without Taylor
Let us not for a moment forget that while we have a new governor coming up along with a new party in the catbird seat, we basically have the same General Assembly ruled by the same old party with the same old philosophies — and the same members who implemented the programs that got us in the hole we’re in.

Yet missing from the General Assembly this year will be Cas Taylor, speaker of the House, who for many years spent considerable time and energy boosting outdoor programs. He is being replaced as speaker by Del. Mike Busch of Anne Arundel County. He’s an effective and diligent legislator, but it appears his priorities are not comparable to those of Taylor on outdoor issues.

Cas lost his seat because redistricting changed the makeup of his district, and some new Western Maryland constituents figured he wasn’t forceful enough in protecting the rights of firearms owners. They thought gun laws were the whole elephant, and they overlooked Cas’s influence in fostering hunting programs. Now hunters have lost their biggest booster in the General Assembly.

Getting Back on Track
As we look ahead, we cannot overlook that under the meddling of the Glendening administration, DNR’s morale dropped to an all-time low. We have lost key personnel as well as programs. Politicians and bureaucrats rule, not scientists. In those eight years, there were four DNR secretaries, three of whom were canned.

How can a department continually under change get on track? It can’t. And, now, facing horrendous fiscal restraints is a new governor we expect to work miracles on a bare-bones budget and a department saturated with bureaucrats forced on the payroll by the old regime.

What choice does our new governor have? Top priority is selecting a non-political secretary who will weed out the chaff, implement new programs, rejuvenate worthwhile old ones, make staff adjustments where appropriate — and beg for funding to make all this possible. This is a formidable task indeed, and certainly one that can’t be accomplished as fast as we’d like.

Even with the best possible secretary, it will take a year or two. Though overall, the department has many capable scientists and administrators, it is in a quagmire, and we who harbor our own priorities must overlook them for the time being. Be patient, and look at the elephant as a whole. As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Enough said.

Copyright 2003
Bay Weekly