ESCANABA - Two weeks ago I attended the Natural Resources Commission (NRC) in Sault Ste. Marie. While there I noticed a discernible change in what has been pretty typical for NRC meetings.
First, there were far less MDNR staff present. Years ago they would line the back rows of chairs or stand along the walls, waiting to be called upon to explain policies or procedures within their respective divisions. The amount of personnel present was easy to understand as the department has shrunk to an all time low of 1,200 people, seeing two mass reductions, one during Governor Engler's administration and the second while Governor Granholm was in charge.
Another interesting observation was the gallery of citizens. There weren't the loft of general observers I had grown used to seeing. Instead most who attended were there to provide testimony regarding specific projects.
Except for a few, everybody there was providing input regarding ongoing projects and in giving their perspective, offered facts to bolster their opinions - none of which were confrontational.
A comment from MDNR Director Rodney Stokes at the beginning of the Committee of the Whole part of the meeting set me back.
Stokes first commented on the progress of accessibility problems to MDNR facilities that is being addressed statewide. It is not something that can be pushed back and the Director complimented staff on efforts to complete the tasks.
He then went on to remark, "It seems like we have auditors in our department every month, either from the Auditor Generals office or the Federal Auditors. Currently, there are several audits going on right now within the department.
The auditors from the office of the Inspector General have reviewed our program and problematic records for the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) for our fish and wildlife programs. This includes revenue and expenditure reviews for the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson and game and fish funds for the department. In addition, land management and co-management of state forest were also reviewed. The audit work is being completed and will be presented to the USFWS for their review and is anticipated to be completed in the next several months."
Stokes continued, "From the State's side, the Office of Auditor General is doing a performance audit on the MDNR real estate functions. This includes buying, selling and exchanging of all ends including land consolidation that our department is involved with. Also the Auditor General is in the final stages of completing an audit on our retail system. That is where we sell our hunting and fishing licenses."
"Finally, the Auditor General has begun the single audit process for fiscal year 2010-2011 and the merger and subsequent split of the MDNR and Department of Environmental Quality.", Stokes said. "It seems we are faced with a new audit every other month."
Since then I recently asked some of the MDNR staff if they were seeing an inordinate amount of requests for information? The answer was a resounding yes!
Now in hearing this I had to ask if there were primary sources levying the requests, including those related to the political side of government. Again, the answer was yes but limited as to who was involved, so as not to "rock the boat" too much. By the way, MDNR staff are now also restricted on presenting position statements on issues per a directive from current Governor Snyder.
Since all the right-sizing within the MDNR has taken place, the additional load of filling requests has taken a proportionate amount of effort away from doing the work expected from the department and I think it is time it stopped.
A unique plan to regionalize Michigan's natural resources management has just been implemented. In so doing, the Upper Peninsula is singled out as a region, and staff from the MDNR have taken the initiative to do the best with what they have to work with.
Terry Minzey, formerly the eastern UP Wildlife Supervisor, has been re-appointed to supervise the entire peninsula. His counterpart Bob Doepker, who previously managed the western side, has also taken on the task of Special Projects Biologist UP wide.
Minzey recently emphasized that they will approach their mission with an emphasis on opportunity and less restriction. The decision making capability of area wildlife and fisheries biologists and foresters seems to be increasing, which to me seem to almost provide a sense of autonomy.
A sign of proof is the recent formation of at least seven "Sportsmen Coalitions" that will work on topics of mutual interest, including habitat management projects, game management issues, and hunting regulations. Unless it involves a major policy change, the resolve stays local.
Most every legitimate conservation organization I am involved with indicate satisfaction in working with the MDNR, again except for occasional differences that can and do see resolve. I am told this both locally and from statewide and national entities.
I believe it is time to let those capable of interpreting financials and fiscal programs in those audits previously mentioned to do their job. Whistles will blow, lights will flash and bells will ring if an irregularity and/or inefficiency is found.
My point is that it is high time we get back to the business of working for the good of conservation and get out of the business of "putting out political fires". Those who persist I believe are doing so to further their own agenda and gain control. It is not in the best interest of the user and especially not in the best interest of the natural resources.
Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Tails & Trails Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.