Politics at IF&W: The Chain That Binds?
By Stu Bristol
The incoming Commissioner of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife may be the best man ever seated in the job, he may turn out to be a figurehead politician, or his performance may fall someplace between the two extremes. Only time will tell but hunters, trappers and anglers are beginning to wonder just how much political affiliations affect the outcome of fisheries and wildlife management decisions. Is it time for Maine sportsmen and women to rise up and demand that top dogs be hired along the guidelines of a company CEO and top level executives instead of a tap on the shoulder from the incoming Governor?
Fish stocking, moose hunting, pheasant rearing, wild turkey management and population control of deer on posted land are all governed primarily by the political winds. Non-consumptive activities such as private gun ownership, snowmobiling, ATV use, and personal watercraft operation also have fallen prey to political decision-making, and rules made for the non-hunting/angling public also affect hunters and anglers.
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Already in this session of the Legislature a wave of politically-motivated bills are assaulting Mainer rights to own or possess firearms, and others in the works to completely overhaul Maine's fish and wildlife hunting and fishing regulations.
Politics-based rather than science-based management decisions will cost license-holders untold hardships this season. Fish rearing and stocking is certain to take a big hit this summer. Turkey hunters rejoiced at the increase of allocated permits to 12,000, but what they don't realize is that more than 1,000 permits will go unused this season, due to a political decision not to offer unclaimed permits to alternates.
The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife operates under a budget of about $27 million. Within the Department are 320 employees serving a wide range of Mainers -- from the state's 250,000 hunters and anglers, to those who simply enjoy watching wildlife. Maine game wardens enforce fish and wildlife laws, but they also rescue anyone lost in the state's forests or fields. IFW wildlife biologists manage game populations, such as moose and deer, but they also watch over threatened and endangered species. Fisheries biologists try to insure good fishing, but they also work to improve fisheries habitat. All this management responsibility is compounded when you consider Maine is spread out over 17 million aces.
With such a burden in mind we wonder why we allow members of the oversight committee (Advisory Council) to be selected on the same political basis, instead of by credentials and employment records. If it is true that IF&W personnel are "working for the license-holders" then why are politicians in charge of hiring our company executives and watchdogs?
As a license-holder,(nearly the sole financial provider for the Department) place yourself on the Board of Directors of a private sector company with a similar operating budget of $27 million annually. How would you go about choosing the right person, with the right qualifications as your CEO?
Given the charge by the incoming governor, that the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife must now operate primarily on income derived through license sales, which would you want in command, a politician or a veteran top level executive, with a degree in business management?
Given that choice, the MBA would be the obvious selection. The Board of Directors would establish a search committee, screen candidates, investigate prior employment of candidates and personally interview the candidates to ascertain their viewpoints on a variety of topics that will affect the performance of the department as a whole. Law enforcement and biologists are currently hired in this manner, so why not the top-level management of the Department?
This is not to say our incoming Commissioner is not qualified for the job, or that he was not screened properly by the legislature. He was, in fact, compared to candidates, screened and approved by the Legislature (more politicians) and selected ultimately by the Governor. According to a news release sent by the Baldacci campaign shortly after the election, Roland (Dan) Martin of Caribou has over thirty years of administration and management experience and is an avid sportsman. Since 1987 he has been the County Administrator for Aroostook County.
The former Manager of the Towns of Frenchville and Madawaska, Martin served in the State Senate from 1977-1980 and as State Representative from 1975-1976. While in the Legislature, Martin served on the Committees on State Government and Agriculture, Taxation and Inland, Fisheries & Wildlife.
Martin has also been a small business owner operating Rosette's Restaurant and Martin's Grocery and Sporting Camps in Sinclair, Maine. Martin has been active in the community serving on many boards including; Cary Medical Center, the Northern Maine Development Commission, the Loring Development Authority and the Maine Rural Development Authority.
Still, it is the political appointment and affiliation that has been the root of criticism of past Commissioners here in Maine, and in other New England states, that similarly depend upon dedicated license revenues to operate.
With the rapid loss of hunting and fishing land due to sprawl, the increase of public sentiment away from firearms ownership and a major increase in activity by animal right movements, will hunting and fishing opportunities in Maine continue to decline at the current alarming rate? Would a strong business manager instead of a politically-appointed Commissioner keep a stern foot in the door for hunters, trappers and anglers?
Already during this legislative session hundreds of frivolous bills have been entered and at least some of the most outlandish ones may slip past the watchful eyes of SAM and other hired guns.
Without a doubt, politics is the last thing opponents to firearms, hunting and fishing want to see go away. Is it possible that, without political favors and back room deals, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife might not have to rely upon dedicated revenues?
The long and short of it is that we cannot trust the Legislators to keep their hands off license revenues. That's why we have held such a tight grip on dedicated funding. But, with dedicated funding comes limited services. If the people we hire at the top of our "company" yield to political pressures, there is little doubt the "consumptive-uses" of fish and wildlife will continue to dwindle.
We need a strong business plan that will counter the politics. If we cannot be granted funding for search and rescue of non-license holders, then the Department should aggressively bill those lost hunters or charge back the expenses to the General fund, as they occur.
A strong business leader might address the problems of sprawl and frivolous local firearms ordinances such as was passed in Biddeford last July. SAM leadership crowed about the law they helped pass to mandate cities and towns to register their firearms ordinances with IF&W. To date only one town has complied (out of nearly two dozens with ordinances) and there are no plans to fine or otherwise force delinquent towns to obey the law.
Is it time to break the political chain that binds sound fish and wildlife management to the whims of legislators and lobbyists? Just as there is separation between church and state shouldn't there be a separation between politics and science?
Stu Bristol is a freelance writer, living in Lyman. His weekly and monthly columns have been published nationwide for over 30 years. For more Stu Bristol articles visit www.stubristol.com.
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