Best taken with a grain of salt

The Baltimore Sun

SALT LAKE CITY-- --Well, how smart am I?

Leave Baltimore on Wednesday with the temperature pinning the nastymeter at the century mark and the humidity high enough to make licking the flap of an envelope unnecessary.

Land here, where the temperature is a refreshing 96.

Luckily, the gig that brings me to the land of Romney is the Outdoor Retailer trade show, where those who require the latest and greatest - not to mention the most-expensive - toys meet the manufacturers of said devices in an unholy marketing marriage.

The stuff you'll see on shelves next spring is the stuff that's being paraded here and now in a cavernous convention hall called the Salt Palace. Gear-makers are touting their environmental commitment, using recycled materials in clothing and making their packaging out of biodegradable materials. The future, it seems, is no longer plastics.

With the news full of stories about children infected with an outdoors-deficit virus and burdened by video addiction, it makes you wonder who all these products - bikes, boats, boots, binoculars, camping gear, clothes, how-to guides, the list is endless - are being sold to.

So despite its overwhelming size, this summer's get together is somewhat depressing. And, when coupled with the release Thursday of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's preliminary national survey of fishing, hunting and other wildlife activities in 2006, it's unsettling.

Over the past five years, there's been a 12 percent decline nationally in the number of fishermen and a 4 percent drop in hunters. The number of what the survey calls "wildlife watchers" is up 8 percent. That might be considered cause for celebration except for the fine print, which says that the watchers are considered to be anyone who "closely" looks out a window, visits a "public area" or plants something in the yard.

That could describe a Peeping Tom, or as my AARP-aged spouse cracks, "We're getting too old to shoot them or chase them, guess we'll watch them."

Given that backdrop, Maryland hewed pretty closely to the national trends.

One-third of residents 16 and older participate in either wildlife watching, fishing, hunting or a combination of the categories, according to the numbers gathered by the U.S. Census for this survey. Of the total, 1.3 million people call themselves wildlife watchers, nearly a half-million consider themselves anglers and about 148,000 are hunters.

As far as economic impact in Maryland, outdoors folks are a $1.34 billion engine. Wildlife watching ($596 million in annual expenditures) edged fishing ($547 million) and overwhelmed hunting ($200 million). But per participant, anglers and hunters spend more than double what the watchers do.

DNR doings

In looking for a way to end this column with a laugh, I have to look no farther than our own Department of Natural Resources, which has, in its infinite wisdom, taken time out of its busy schedule to establish an Office of Sustainability.

Now this may be a good idea. And its time may have come.

But with so many unresolved matters on its plate (the naming of a new fisheries task force, for example) and a statewide fishing tournament that is, pardon the pun, floundering for lack of internal and external support, where do they find the time for this?

Secretary John Griffin and Assistant Secretary Frank Dawson are to be applauded for focusing some attention on improving things for boaters, a huge but largely ignored part of Maryland's outdoors community.

The new Boating Services Division will combine the employees who handle planning and improvement programs with other technical aspects of keeping the state's waterways safe and navigable.

The official communiqu?, released on Friday when few were around to notice, also announced the creation of teams to deal with invasive species, engaging youth in outdoor experiences, and resolving conflict among stakeholder groups. The latter will be informally known in this column as the Division of Do Overs, or DODO.

But the Office of Sustainability? Which member of the governor's committee to re-elect thought up that doozy of a title? Where will the OOS be based, at a latte bar in the People's Republic of Montgomery County?

According to the official communiqu?, the OOS will consist of experts who will: "gather information, analyze trends, develop sustainability plans, coordinate action and measure results under BayStat and StateStat."

Say what? If I'm an angler who has seen his license fees double to pay for stuff DNR needs - just as hunters did several years ago - what I want to see is a little bit of love from the folks who took my money.

Could the reorganization team stop for just a second and act as if it cares about its customers and not the process?

Maybe DNR will establish OOGH, an Office of Group Hugs, for that.

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