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State's fiscal hits on NRP are getting out of hand

The Baltimore Sun

At first glance, the O'Malley administration's proposed cuts at the Department of Natural Resources for the remainder of the fiscal year seem rather mild.

Eliminate the helicopter and its crew, and remove 23 vacant slots at Natural Resources Police for a total savings of $1.9 million.

On first glance, it's a quick fix and fairly bloodless, unless, of course, you're the whirlybird guys.

But it's not quite that simple. It never is.

And it's up to you to stop it.

Simply put, Natural Resources Police is a shell of its former self. A poor stepchild of Maryland State Police, the alpha male of state law enforcement agencies, NRP always gets the short end of the fiscal stick.

Sadly, when it's not being underfunded, NRP gets abused in other ways. Take the Ehrlich administration's public relations gimmick of making the force look bigger by transferring 91 park rangers to its ranks. That ended up being a zero gain because the additional manpower still didn't bring it up to full strength, and NRP had to add 47 parks and five state forests to its patrols.

Officers keep boaters safe, nail fish-and-game poachers and conduct search-and-rescue missions. But while NRP keeps getting fewer and fewer dollars and boots on the ground to cover its mission, politicians like Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Martin O'Malley keep piling on responsibilities, such as homeland security details. Something has to give, and I'm afraid it's going to be your safety and the protection of Maryland's fish and critters.

Cutting 23 vacant positions and the chopper team doesn't tell the story. Since the O'Malley administration won't tell you and Department of Natural Resources Secretary John Griffin can't undercut his boss by laying out the facts, here they are:

Eighteen years ago, the state's waterways, woods and parks were patrolled by 451 NRP officers and Maryland Park Service rangers.

From 2002 until this year, there were few recruits and no academy classes to train them. After the addition of the park rangers - carried out under the guise of "streamlining"- the total force was 289 officers.

Today, NRP has 55 unfilled positions. About 12 officers retire each year and 67 officers are eligible to retire right now.

How sad is that?

Granted, the state - like everyone else - is in a financial bind this year. The NRP reductions are a drop in the bucket when viewed as part of the $400 million in spending cuts O'Malley and the two other members of the state Board of Public Works will vote on Wednesday.

But that's the point. NRP has taken more than its share of hits over the years. There must be other places to find $1.9 million. Pick on someone else for a change.

O'Malley and Griffin do all these photo ops while proclaiming they will protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay.

Well, dudes, riddle me this: How are you going to protect something without the officers on patrol and the "eyes in the sky?" A massive "Turn Yourself In" program ain't gonna cut it.

Sherman Baynard, a founder of Coastal Conservation Maryland, notes that members of both the Fisheries Management Task Force and the Oyster Advisory Commission want stronger laws and more enforcement.

"It's seldom you get the recreationals, the commercials and the environmentalists on the same page," says Baynard, chairman of CCA's Fisheries Committee. "But enforcement is an important component in the big picture of Chesapeake Bay restoration and enhancement."

O'Malley and Griffin need to hear from folks who fish and hunt, who enjoy carefree hikes in the woods and cruises on the bay, who want potential park vandals scared off and poachers arrested.

Before Wednesday's vote, give them a shout out: www.governor.maryland.gov or jgriffin@dnr.state.md.us.

Deer hunt proposal

Bowhunting alone hasn't been enough to reduce the deer population at Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area, so DNR is proposing a two-day, shotgun-only hunt in January.

A discussion of the plan will be Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the auditorium of New Town High School, 4931 New Town Blvd., Owings Mills.

Soldiers Delight is a 1,900-acre tract in Baltimore County that is home to more than 30 threatened or endangered species. But when the growing deer population gets hungry, it doesn't differentiate between the rare and the run of the mill.

DNR biologists hope to close Soldiers Delight to the public Jan. 20 and 21 to allow hunters to reduce the herd.

To view the plan and offer comment, visit www.dnr.maryland.gov and go to the "wildlife" page.

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