Staff cuts imperil care of refuge


ROCK HALL -- Phil Cicconi and nearly 200 diligent volunteers at the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge keep the place going - running the visitor center and bookstore, building wildfowl observation decks, leading tour groups and cutting hiking trails through the bramble of the isolated Eastern Shore island. But they don't work alone.

The deal, say the Friends of Eastern Neck, is that they contribute the labor, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides professionals to lead and direct their group of enthusiastic amateurs.

Now, a federal budget crunch could mean the loss of the two on-site managers at the 2,300-acre parcel of fields, woods and marsh at the mouth of the Chester River.

The sanctuary would likely be managed by staff based 75 miles to the south at the sprawling 27,000-acre Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge - a consolidation that agency leaders say is similar to staff reductions expected at refuges throughout the country.

The cutbacks would leave just two staff members at Eastern Neck - one administrative officer and one person who would have to handle maintenance as well as law enforcement activities, such as rousting after-hour visitors, beer parties and illegal hunting groups.

'Have to reduce'

"We don't have enough money to operate," said John Stasko, supervisor of the wildlife service's Region 5, which maintains refuges in Maryland and a dozen other states in the Northeast. "Given the budget realities, we have to reduce staff. Now, more than ever, we'll need our volunteer groups."

Cicconi, president of the Eastern Neck friends organization, worries that volunteers who work an average of 7,000 hours a year - the equivalent of 3 1/2 staff positions - will lose focus without direct supervision, and that the refuge could become far less inviting to visitors. It draws 55,000 to 70,000 people a year.

He argues that the sanctuary has value beyond its small size, with its range of wildlife and waterfowl, combined with spectacular views of Kent Island, the Bay Bridge, the Kent Narrows Bridge, Sparrows Point and downtown Baltimore.

The Department of the Interior purchased Eastern Neck Island in pieces from 1962 to 1967, after developers proposed building a subdivision on it. The island, tucked between the town of Rock Hall and Kent Island, is heavily forested with loblolly pine, sweet gum and half a dozen types of oak. Beavers, otters and muskrats are common, and hunters help control the deer population.

The refuge is a major staging area for 2,000 to 5,000 tundra swans, which winter here or move on to eastern North Carolina in December and January. It is home to seven nesting pairs of bald eagles and dozens of ospreys, which sometimes clash with their larger cousins in territorial disputes for abundant fish and other prey.

Miles of trails maintained by staff and volunteers provide a close-up view of more than 240 species of migratory waterfowl.

"I'm really not sure that people making decisions really understand Eastern Neck," said Cicconi, 67, a retired Boeing manager. "This has always been an informal place, and the friends have always been given a lot of latitude. I just hope it all holds together."

Under the proposal presented May 1 to wildlife service managers, 28 of about 400 positions in the Northeast would be eliminated through attrition or reassignment in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, with more cuts to follow in the next few years, Stasko said.

Flat budget

The agency, he said, is operating on a flat budget that has failed to keep pace with increasing salaries and other expenses. The Northeast region operated with a $27.7 million budget this year and would receive about the same next year, he said.

Michael Woodbridge of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, an umbrella organization for about 100 refuge volunteer groups, says the wildlife service has little choice but to pare spending.

President Bush's proposed 2007 budget for the wildlife service is $381.7 million, nearly identical to this year's allotment. That really amounts to an $11 million cut, Woodbridge said.

"A flat budget is actually a loss because of increasing costs, especially salaries," he said. "Our organization has been blowing the horn about this for years." Region 5, he said, "is the first to come out with a formal plan; they've taken it head-on at least."

U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican who represents the Eastern Shore and portions of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties, met recently with agency officials in Washington to question the proposal. He said there would be congressional budget hearings in July on the proposed changes at refuges around the country.

"I'm not opposed to consolidating, and we need to be assured that we're not duplicating staff," Gilchrest said. "We need to take a very close look."

Like other longtime staff members, project manager Martin C. Kaehny, a 30-year veteran, wonders how far dwindling ranks can be stretched. He and four others are already responsible for the Chesapeake Island Refuges, an 80-mile chain of eight islands in the bay.

"I just hate to see what's happening with Eastern Neck," said Kaehny, who said he is eligible for retirement. "I love the place."

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