Op-Ed: Fish & Boat Commission Deserves Its Independence To Restore Financial Stability To The Agency
By Robert E. Hughes, Northeast Regional Vice President, PA Council Of Trout Unlimited
I’m writing as a longtime angler and conservationist of Northeastern Pennsylvania, to relay my concerns about the independence and financial stability of the Fish & Boat Commission.
The Fish & Boat Commission deserves to operate independently of the Legislature.
This is not an exercise of legislative oversight. It’s political interference in an independent agency.
Legislators should allow the Commissioners to determine when it’s time to choose a new Executive Director, and let the agency do what’s best for managing our fisheries. It should be the Commissioners’ call, and at this point, a majority of the Commissioners are happy with the direction of the PFBC under current leadership.
For years, the Pennsylvania Legislature have worked unsuccessfully to address financial issues plaguing the Commission. It has been 12 years since the Commission has been able to raise its fees.
Rising costs have forced it to defer routine maintenance, cut staff, and consider reducing services to the fishing and boating community of Pennsylvanians. The agency is largely supported by fees from its users – angler and boaters.
I think that many anglers and boaters have said for years that they are willing to pay a little bit more to make sure that the Commission can continue to do its job of protecting PA fisheries.
This is a tried-and-true arrangement that helps Pennsylvania recruit sound candidates and keep them accountable, and ensures that the Commission is focused on what's best for our fisheries and waterways.
Sadly, efforts to solve that problem in a bipartisan way have been put on the backburner for now, and instead a movement in the State House has taken place over the independence of the Commission and may force and force a change in leadership of the organization by setting a term limit for the Executive Director.
This is not a very pragmatic approach to solve the financial issues within the Commission.
Many are incredibly frustrated that the Legislature hasn’t allowed the Commission to raise its license fees so it can stay ahead of rising costs and avoid more cuts. Lawmakers should set aside this political disagreement and focus on that issue.
I am urging our colleagues and leaders of our Legislature to listen to John Arway, Executive Director, and work with him and the State Legislature to move the Commission closer to a stable balance sheet and back to the job of protecting our streams and fisheries.
I am willing to pay a little more in fees and I think that many people who fish across PA are willing to pay a little more, because we know first-hand how much the staff, Waterways Conservation Officers, fishery biologists, hatchery staff, and aquatic resource program specialists, staff do to protect and enhance the State’s economically valuable fisheries that we are underutilized and have the potential to improve hundreds of more miles of streams for restoration and stream habitat improvement.
I appreciate the work the Commission does, and we work closely with them on projects to protect and restore trout streams in Pennsylvania.
I work with the Fish & Boat Commission in many capacities and on numerous stream restoration projects across our region and with many Northeast Regional Chapters of TU that do as well.
We need to continue to see that they are self-sustaining to support our volunteers and community groups who are protecting the coldwater resources, watersheds, fisheries, and ecological systems across Pennsylvania.
This is economically important. More than a million people who fish add more than $1 billion to Pennsylvania’s bottom line each year.
They rely solely on fishing license fees and federal grants—no state tax dollars—to do its critical work of enforcing pollution laws, protecting sensitive streams and wetlands, and maintaining public infrastructure like dams and fish hatcheries.
Sadly, we haven't been able to garner the votes from our Representatives and Senators to do so.
The recent actions of the House in an apparent act of political backlash, now threatens to pull the rug out from under the Commission's Executive Director, John Arway, a true conservationist and colleague that I have great respect for who has supported watershed restoration projects, acid mine drainage remediation efforts, fishery studies, hatchery improvements, and fishery habitat improvement projects for many years.
There is no excuse for trying to pass a law to limit the term of the Executive Director that has led his staff to improve Pennsylvania's waterways, lakes, and streams while providing numerous recreational outlets, programs, and fishing opportunities for families, Pennsylvanians, and non-residents alike.
I would imagine that this situation is a problem for people just like me who fish, actively restore, protect, and improve our rivers and streams, and enjoy the outdoor recreational opportunities at our public waterways.
Anyone who cares about clean water that we all have a right to under Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution should be concerned.
The move of the Legislature threatens to undermine the independence of the Fish and Boat Commission and put our healthy, fishable waters across the State at risk and will continue to leave our streams that remain at risk even more vulnerable.
The Legislature already has oversight to make sure that the Commission is sticking to its mission.
The Senate approves the Governor’s appointees to the Commission – they appointed four of them just last year. The Commission submits annual reports to the House and Senate Game and Fisheries Committees, and appears before those committees to answer questions.
The Joint Legislative Budget and Finance Committee conducts a performance audit every three years.
If the Legislature isn't hearing from the fishing and boating community about a marginal license increase on a daily basis, then what is the real problem?
John Arway is a leader, let him lead.
[Editor’s Note: 1,163 responses (as of 5:00 p..m. March 16) to an online poll in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette created by John Hayes found 80 percent agreed with the statement, “Will you hold your legislators responsible at the polls if state politics interferes with the routine operation of the wildlife management commissions?”]
Robert E. Hughes, Northeast Regional Vice President, PA Council Of Trout Unlimited, he can be contacted at 570-239-3909 or send email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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[Posted: March 16, 2018]
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