Meadville Tribune

Opinion

March 21, 2014

Most not wild about Game Commission/Fish and Boat merger

Lawmakers are quibbling over how much the state could save by merging two agencies that enforce the commonwealth’s wildlife laws.

The Legislative Budget and Finance Committee says merging the state’s Game Commission and Fish and Boat Commission could save almost $5 million. Defenders of the status quo say the committee is over-estimating.

Fuzzy numbers aside, Rep. Robert Godshall, R-Montgomery County, said the problem may best be summarized by the story of two wayward bear hunters.

At the committee’s meeting Wednesday, Godshall described an incident in which two men were trying to hunt but weren’t certain if they were on game lands open for bear hunting.

They encountered someone with a badge and asked if they were hunting in the right place. The officer said they were, so they went about their business, ultimately getting a bear. They took their prize to a Game Commission station and were told they had taken the bear illegally because they had hunted out of bounds.

Turns out, they’d gotten their directions from a Fish and Boat Commission officer who didn’t know what he was talking about.

Defenders of separate agencies say they create an environment where officers are true experts in their fields. The flip side is they may become too specialized.

Godshall argues that the state ought to expect anyone hired to enforce wildlife laws, as a matter of public service, to have a basic enough understanding to help any outdoors enthusiast.

It’s an expectation everywhere else in America.

Pennsylvania is the only the state with a Fish and Boat Commission, as well as a Game Commission.

In 20 other states, the wildlife officers are in one agency. In 29 states, wildlife law enforcement is housed within a larger agency; in Pennsylvania that would be like folding the two commissions into the Department of Conservation and Natural Resource. The department is responsible for managing the state’s forests and state parks.

A merger is unlikely for several reasons. The commissions are funded by license fees, not tax dollars, so lawmakers have no direct incentive to pursue a plan to reduce the cost. It’s not like the Legislature could take the $5 million in savings and do something else with the money.

So, Godshall doesn’t seem to have a lot of allies with the same enthusiasm for the merger.

“Pennsylvania is a little different,” said Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Cambria County. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

Pennsylvania has the second-most miles of streams and rivers in the nation. Only Alaska has more.

Pennsylvania also has a lot more land maintained for public use, as game lands or state forests, than most other states, Haluska said.

“Do we need a separate Fish and Boat Commission?” he said. “Probably.”

I stopped to chat with Carl Shingara, who operates Old Trail Bait and Tackle in Shamokin Dam, to see what he thought of the idea of merging the two agencies.

Shingara noted that he’s never run into a problem because the state operates one set of cops for the waterways and another for the woods.

With that lack of conflict, there are 52 other good reasons the agencies will never merge.

That’s the number of jobs the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee estimated that a merger would eliminate. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned from Gov. Tom Corbett’s first term in office — it might be that cutting government jobs is no way to win a popularity contest.

That being the case, a merger could be less likely than the somewhat ludicrous alternative of more commissions divided from the pair we already have.

What might be next?

“A Kayak Commission?” Shingara joked.

John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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