Is It Time To Abolish the Fish and Wildlife Advisory Council?
By V. Paul Reynolds
In a recent editorial, the Maine Sportsman, a statewide outdoor newspaper, advocated the abolishment of the ten- member Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Advisory Council. The outdoor publication argued that the council has become "an unnecessary appendage."
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Is that the case? Has the Fish and Wildlife Advisory Council outlived its usefulness?
The Advisory Council is made up of citizen sportsmen who represent the 16 counties of the state. Appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state legislature, the council works with the Fish and Wildlife commissioner to provide information and advice concerning the administration of the Department. The council also reviews all rule changes proposed by the commissioner.
It would take legislative action to dissolve the Advisory Council, which is by law a component of governance, part of the administrative and rule-making machinery of the state Fish and Wildlife Department. Appointments to the council are for a term of three years and a person may not serve more than two consecutive terms. In addition to regular and special meetings, council members are expected to attend public hearings on pending rules, as well as to sponsor public forums to gather information about fish and wildlife issues. Council members also attend local fish and game club meetings, conservation events and events sponsored by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIF&W).
Over the years I have watched the council perform its function. As MDIF&W's information officer for a number of years, I worked with the council and attended many regular meetings. Later, as an outdoor writer, I have watched the council dispatch its obligations and have often sought out members to get their views on topical fish and wildlife issues.
Although there have been rare exceptions, most council members I have known have been experienced, thoughtful outdoor people well-versed in the fish and wildlife issues and fundamentals of fisheries and wildlife management. Some of them have been insightful, strongminded sportsmen more than willing to question or challenge proposals from the commissioner that were wrongheaded or not well thought out. ( Fish and Wildlife Commissioners are fallible like the rest of us, don't you know).
The critical editorial asserted that "Basically, the council operates as a rubber stamp. Years go by without the council vetoing any of the proposals it gets from the Department." Over the years, the makeup or dynamics of the council has varied. There have been councils that were more energetic and inquiring than others. The same can be said of just about any policymaking entity, including the state legislature. The key, of course, is in the selection process. The right people will not allow themselves to be used as a rubber stamp.
Unmentioned in the editorial is the fact that there is a lot of ground between a rubber stamp and a veto. Original rule making proposals that the commissioner brings to the council are often discussed, deliberated and modified before a vote is ever taken.
This deliberative process rarely gets much attention in the outdoor press making it easy to get a superficial impression that the council is a rubber stamp panel that snores through the sessions and only knows how to vote "Yes."
This just isn't the case. In fact, commissioners and their hardpressed staffs grow impatient and frustrated at times by the time and energy required to justify their proposals to non-professional citizen sportsmen who may at times seem to be obstructionists. But there is an important underlying purpose served by the Advisory Council: oversight.
Given the frenetic pace of fish and wildlife commissioners and their division managers, they can and do get out of touch. The council serves as a critical two-way conduit between the MDIF&W heirarchy and the average sportsmen. Effective council members keep their County rod and gun clubs up to speed on Augusta fish and wildlife doings; they also keep their ears to the ground out in the hinterlands and thereby provide important counsel to the Commissioner on how his proposals will go over in Stacyville or Anson. As a former council member, Ken Bailey, puts it, "I was their voice and their link to Augusta."
Dick Neal of Acton, another former council member, points out that the council is a volunteer group whose cost to the Department is a comparatively meager $10,000 a year.
Perhaps the best reason of all to preserve the council is that our Commissioner of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in Maine is still appointed by the govenor on a patronage basis. A governor can select whomever he wants - qualified or unqualified- to direct MDIF&W. In its oversight function, the Advisory Council has the potential to provide a buffer against an inept or misdirected commissioner.
Abolishing the council would also shift the balance of power giving more autonomy to both the fish and wildlife commissioner and assorted outdoor special interest groups who vie for primacy within the Augusta inner circle.
Get rid of the Fish and Wildlife Advisory Council? No way!
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program "Maine Outdoors" heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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