Public Speaks On WDFW-Parks Merger

Much of the public testimony about Senate Bill 5669 in Olympia today centered around the Fish & Wildlife Commission, which would have its powers stripped under the bill.

Some see it as a power grab by the governor while others said it would lead to special interests horning in on fish and game management decisions.

Norman Reinhardt, president of the Kitsap Poggie Club, said it would turn the clock back, putting politics before science.

“Do not allow this merger take place,” he said.

That was a common sentiment among the anglers who spoke before the Senate Natural Resources and Marine Waters committee, chaired by Sen. Kevin Ranker, a North Sound Democrat.

In a live TVW broadcast of the 106-minute-long public hearing, Ranker kept speakers moving along in their allotted two minutes, and at the end of it, took time to reassure the audience that in all likelihood, the bill in his committee now would not be the one that emerges from it based on the testimony received from the 20 to 30 speakers.

SB 5669 came at the request of Governor Gregoire who last December proposed merging the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife with State Parks and the small Recreation and Conservation Office in response to the $4.6 billion revenue shortfall and drives in recent years to make natural resource management more efficient.

However, under it, the Fish & Wildlife Commission, which was granted authority over the governor to regulate fisheries by a 61-39 statewide vote in 1995, would take a backseat advisory roll.

Several speakers said that that would set back big gains in resource management and that what we have now seems to be working.

Jim Howard, a concerned angler and the afternoon’s final speaker, said the commission exists in a “fragile balance,” and to mess with it would do “irreparable damage.”

Turning the commission into an advisory panel would “lose what we have working for us,” said Puget Sound Anglers president Ron Garner before him. “We live here not because of football, but fishing and hunting. I’ve gone other places they call paradise, but this is paradise.”

“They sent me up here with a very short message,” added Larry Snyder about members of the 82-year-old Vancouver Wildlife League. “We do not like what you’re trying to do. We worked hard on that referendum in 1995 and don’t want to do it again. We urge you to reject it.”

In response to intimations that the committee had created the bill, Vice Chair Sen. Debbie Regala, a Tacoma Democrat, reminded the gathered that she and Ranker “brought this bill forward to discuss it, not that we support it.”

The bill directs WDFW and Parks to merge into a new Department of Conservation and Recreation by mid-2012. It would structure DCR so as to “maintain at least two distinct areas of focus: One for fish and wildlife management and one for parks and recreation management.”

DCR’s head would be appointed by the governor, but Carl Burke of Fish Northwest, who said he was representing 1,100 sportfishing businesses and 11,000 employees in the industry, said he would like to see the director of the fish and wildlife part of the super agency continue to be appointed by the commission.

Ed Wickersham, one of several members of the Coastal Conservation Commission who spoke, said that a merger might lead to “years of confusion, interagency squabbling and immense cost” among the affected agencies.

Frank Urabeck, involved in any number of salmon issues around the region but speaking for himself, said he didn’t believe the merger would save much money, and he said that for WDFW staffers it would “knock morale through the basement, which is where we are now.”

Tim Young of the Washington Federation of State Employees said that surveys of members who work for WDFW found 61 percent were opposed to the merger.

Mark James, a WDFW enforcement officer, said that fellow game wardens don’t support the bill because it would dilute their work.

Ted Measor, a concerned citizen who claimed to “represent a whole heckuva a lot of fishermen in Washington state,” said the bill would alienate sportsmen in the state and that he might go spend his money in Canada where he feels like he’s wanted.”

The importance of hunting and fishing on Washington’s economy did not appear lost on the Senate committee. Ranker pointed out that it’s an industry that directly contributes $1.4 billion annually and employees 14,000 — and that doesn’t count hotel, restaurant, gas station or other service workers in places where we go to chase deer and fish.

“Know that I and this committee have been doing our homework,” he said. “It rivals some of the companies that are hallmarks of this state.”

One speaker pointed out that while the Fish & Wildlife Commission may cost the state several hundred thousand dollars to maintain, “you make more than that back in service” from commissioners.

Ray Carter, a member of several gun groups, pointed out SB 5669 would concentrate a lot of power with the governor, and warned, “think ahead, the governor won’t always be a Democrat.”

He and Ranker playfully sparred when Carter brought up the idea of a Tea Party governor.

More soberly, Joe Taller, vice chair of the State Parks & Recreation Commission, called the merger a “mistake,” pointing to internal WDFW issues such as the tensions between sport and commercial anglers, as well as co-management with the tribes, “and then you’ve got hunters on top of all that.”

Not all speakers were against the bill.

Bill Robinson of The Nature Conservancy supported it, though wanted the commissions to set long-term policies and said there should be a “fire wall” between Parks, Fish & Wildlife and RCO, which grants moneys to both agencies.

Ed Owens, speaking for Washingtonians For Wildlife Conservation and three other groups, said that “my clientele is pleased to see this.”

Jeromy Jording, a WDFW Puget Sound commercial salmon manager who was representing the Washington Fish & Wildlife Professionals, said the organization “conditionally supported” the bill.

“As employees of WDFW, we’ve gone through consolidations before and hope to share that experience with you,” he said.

Before public testimony began, a pair of staffers from the governor’s office briefed senators on the bill. One said that they had heard concerns about the proposed agency’s name, how that leaves out fisheries, and were open to other ideas.

Let me just halt this blog right here and pitch, oh, I don’t know, how about Washington Fish, Wildlife & Parks? Kinda covers the gamut, don’t you think?

OK, back to the report.

Some have grumbled about how little this and other mergers would save — $2.5 million over the coming two years — and speaking to that, Kirsten Arestad of the Office of Financial Management acknowledged that “these figures appear to be modest.”

However, she pointed to another $350,000 in savings that could be attained by consolidating things not previously considered — a boating program, office locations.

Other speakers opposed to the bill included Jack Field of the Washington Cattleman’s Association, Gregg Bufando and Paul Sparks from Trout Unlimited, and Dan Freeman of South Sound Fly Fishers.

Regala and Ranker thanked those who testified for being polite and keeping their remarks brief.

Ranker also extended invitations to the public to return to a workshop at 5:30 p.m. in the same office on Monday, Valentine’s Day.

For other takes on the meeting, see Allen Thomas’ coverage in The Columbian and Robbie Tobeck’s blog at The Outdoor Line.


One Response to “Public Speaks On WDFW-Parks Merger”

  1. Nora Porter Says:

    Joe Taller (current Parks Commissioner) and Teri Nomura of Jefferson County who is also chair of the Jefferson County Democrats) spoke against the consolidation and/or raised questions about SB 5669/HB1850. Nomura also focussed on the annual pass/parking fee issue, reminding everyone that recent history proved it was a failure…”raised too little revenue and cost too much!” netting state parks only $3.6M while its revenue replacement (the Opt-out donation program avaiable thru licensing our vehicles) raised $22M last biennium without all the bureaucracy…and people came back to their parks! She also questioned the added new programs (Youth Development and Conservation Division!?) and more advisory committees with travel budgets! Revenuewise, build on what works, not on what has already proved a failure. State Parks has admitted that the annual pass/user-fees option in these bills may still result in closing and/or mothballing many parks. Still a bad idea…not a solution to parks’ funding issues/problems.

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