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What, nature lovers ask, is a DNR?


SALT LAKE CITY - So, who are you?

I ask that not in an election-year tribute to Admiral Stockdale, the vice presidential running mate of Ross Perot, who posed a similar question during a debate more than a decade ago. I ask it because it's something I wonder every time I sit down to write to you.

Outdoors lovers come in all shapes and sizes, all ages, both genders. Anglers, hunters, birders, pedalers, paddlers, climbers. Those who prefer mountains and woods and those who can't imagine straying far from the water. Political activists and folks who wouldn't walk across the street to see the second coming of FDR. Card-carrying members of the NRA and contributors to Sierra Club.

And I'm sure I've left someone out. Two reports dropped into my hands last week. One was done on behalf of the Department of Natural Resources. The other was prepared for the Outdoor Industry Association as part of the twice-annual Outdoor Retailer trade show held here in Utah.

Both provide an interesting look into our loosely defined hobby that, for some, borders on obsession.

The local look at the outdoors community was conducted by Responsive Management, a Virginia-based polling firm known for its work on fish and wildlife issues. The firm also took the pulse of residents of 12 other states that are part of the Northeast Conservation Information and Education Association.

Pollsters talked to 400 Marylanders in December. The results have an error rate of plus or minus five points.

The 300-page report says residents love their critters and public lands, want them protected and think the agency that manages them does a good job.

But 69 percent of those polled couldn't for the life of them name DNR, 73 percent said they knew little or nothing about the agency and 95 percent didn't know that DNR has a Web site that lists all of the doings and rules pertinent to the outdoors.

Now that's a head-scratcher. How can we be so sure we like something that's so nebulous?

Mark Duda, executive director of Responsive Management, chuckles at the question.

"We don't know who runs the traffic lights in town, but we know whether they're synchronized to let us get across town or they're out of whack," he says.

Marylanders aren't alone in liking something they don't quite know. The lost identity problem "is true across the U.S.," he says of other fish and game departments.

On the one hand, Duda says the lack of recognition isn't as important as the fact that "DNR enjoys a tremendous amount of support and has high credibility."

But on the other hand, "if people don't know what DNR is, how are they going to know about programs for them, how are they going to know about legislation DNR is proposing on their behalf and how are they going to use the Web site?"

Those are good questions, and ones DNR's management needs to address.

If you've watched TV while traveling elsewhere, you may have seen a commercial that features Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his wife promoting Maryland's outdoors activities, from Deep Creek Lake to the ocean.

It would be nice if a local version of the spot played in prime time. Or if more than six people knew about the weekly outdoors program produced by Maryland Public Television on the state's behalf. I can't even get someone to send copies to the state's outdoors writers so we can preview it.

Here are some other findings of the poll:

The most popular activity last year was visiting a state or national park (52 percent), followed by viewing wildlife close to home (49 percent).

Bird watching (40 percent), hiking (36 percent) and biking (25 percent) were more popular than freshwater fishing (20 percent), saltwater fishing (16 percent) or hunting (10 percent).

Seventy percent of those polled trust state fish and wildlife biologists more than representatives of the National Wildlife Federation (49 percent), local environmental groups (26 percent) or the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (25 percent).

When asked what the top fishing and wildlife issue was, 30 percent said water pollution and water quality, 9 percent said the Chesapeake Bay, 7 percent said deer overpopulation and 6 percent said urban sprawl.

Sixty-two percent of hunters and 67 percent of anglers thought license fees were fair (the poll was taken before DNR asked the legislature to raise a combo freshwater and tidal license by $8).

A like percentage said they would support an increase in license fees if it meant more for animal and habitat protection and more opportunities to hunt and fish.

Slightly more than two-thirds of those polled believe license fees alone should pay for the management of fish and wildlife, but more than three-quarters of respondents think general tax revenue should pay for fishing and hunting education and outreach.

Finally, residents are almost evenly split on whether the state should allow a black bear hunt, but those who hate it really hate it.

The broader-brush survey of outdoors lovers was presented Friday morning by Doug Haley of Harris Interactive at the outdoor trade show. The study was touted by the industry as "the most extensive research ever conducted on the outdoor consumer."

The consumer survey of 7,682 people - 2,045 of them active in the outdoors - should serve as a blueprint for state natural resource managers and sportsmen's groups trying to stem the loss of participants. The answer, says Haley, is "you've got to get them young."

Of those active in the outdoors, 90 percent started when they were between the ages of 5 and 18.

"There's a huge fall-off in participation," between the ages of 25 and 44 because of other commitments, cost and the lack of a social network to provide mentors and companions.

That sounds like a great opening for sportsmen's groups and old what's-its-name - DNR.

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