Governor, don't chop the choppers

The Baltimore Sun

When he returns from Iraq late this summer after his third tour of duty, Brian Martin will be out of the state job he loves.

Until last Wednesday, Lt. Martin was the commander and senior pilot of the Natural Resources Police aviation unit. Now, the decorated pilot is a chief warrant officer flying for the Army. His last tour of duty was to help ferret out roadside bombs before they injured ground troops.

For the sake of saving $130,000 next year, the O'Malley administration is grounding two helicopters and reassigning Martin, Sgt. John Buchanan and mechanic Greg Lantz. Governor O'Malley apparently believes their duties can be assumed by the State Police Medevac pilots and their choppers.

He is wrong.

Not only is he wrong, but he's also trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the outdoors community.

Anglers, for example, didn't grouse much when their license fees doubled because O'Malley promised to make things better at the Department of Natural Resources.

A task force convened under the blanket of that promise made no bones about the fact that law enforcement manpower was seriously behind the curve, allowing poachers to steal oysters, crabs and fish at will. But it appears that words, not action, are all anglers are going to get for their license money.

Just last week, the task force's warning was driven home: Federal prosecutors announced that they had broken up a striped bass black market that scooped up millions of dollars worth of rockfish from the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River for sale around the country. NRP's chopper pilots and observers were in the thick of the state and federal sting, providing surveillance and backup for undercover officers.

Apparently, that didn't move the governor and his budget people to reconsider their actions.

"It's unfortunate that they have taken this step. It's counterproductive," says Dave Smith, an official with the 7,000-member Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association. "[Helicopters] are one of the major tools NRP has to enforce our laws."

The MSSA and other groups expect to attend a DNR budget hearing Feb. 18 in Annapolis. The budget can't be increased by lawmakers, but money can be shifted. Of course, the governor could fix this in a second. You can go to his Web site ( and give him some suggestions.

There's a long list of things the NRP pilots and observers have accomplished, including: locating lost waterfowl hunters with thermal imaging equipment; spotting the largest field of marijuana in Maryland history - street value nearly $3 million - in Wicomico County; nabbing speeding boaters in the coastal bays behind Ocean City; and rescuing a family stranded for six hours after its boat quit. Helicopters direct NRP officers to illegal nets in the bay, illegal traps in wetlands and illegal baiting by deer and turkey poachers. Quietly, DNR biologists acknowledge that they need the aviation unit, too, to do research and count critters such as deer, ducks and geese.

And explain this, governor: After spending millions in an attempt to restore oysters, who is going to protect those sanctuaries from poachers?

The answer is not state police. Three-quarters of the time, those guys are flying vital Medevac missions. They have enough on their plates, and conservation enforcement is hardly a priority.

One size, Governor, does not fit all.

I dropped by the NRP hangar in Easton unannounced last week as Martin was cleaning out his desk.

"We've been doing this for 60 years, so obviously there's a need," Martin said as he took citations and awards off the wall. "Our biggest enemy is that conservation law isn't taken seriously. You can't take a helicopter equipped for medevac missions and do what we do. We don't need anything that big."

Dan Schwartzbach, head of the 3,500-member Airborne Law Enforcement Association, agreed, writing a letter to the governor, urging him to retain the NRP choppers.

"Depending on the mission, using an aircraft the size of a Dauphin may be overkill," Schwartzbach said of the State Police helicopters. "The mission defines the aircraft, and it's always been that way if you're doing it right. Otherwise you get too much aircraft for the mission or too much mission for the aircraft."

He said he is not aware of any state or local law enforcement agency in the country that uses Dauphins.

A 2007 consultant's report - financed with your taxes - says state police should get 12 new choppers and NRP should get two replacements for helicopters built when Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter were president.

That report says the state's "two aviation units have distinct and separate missions" and "unless there is a major change to the state's needs, it is assumed that there should be 14 helicopters purchased." The report also suggests a funding source for DNR: allocating 10 percent of the Waterway Improvement Fund over four years.

But that report has disappeared down a rat hole. Luckily someone in the General Assembly kept one.

The NRP aviation unit costs about $650,000 annually. More than $200,000 comes from so-called special funds, federal money returned to Maryland from taxes we pay on outdoors gear such as fishing rods and ammunition.

Cutting the aviation unit does not eliminate the salaries or benefits of the three employees (about $317,000) who will be transferred to field units.

What's left? About $130,000.

Anglers, you're being taken for a ride. You, too, hunters. And boaters, and hikers, and anyone else who uses public lands.

Just thought you'd like to know.

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