By Michael Zagata
The Daily Star
---- — What is the relationship between Gov. Cuomo’s proposed budget and your desire to protect New York’s environment? What is the relationship between Gov. Cuomo’s proposed budget and the economic potential of tourism to upstate? What is the relationship between Gov. Cuomo’s proposed budget and the value you get back from your hunting or fishing license? What is the relationship between Gov. Cuomo’s proposed budget and his claim that New York is once again business friendly?
Each of those things is impacted by his proposal to cut $58 million from the DEC’s budget. And it doesn’t stop there. You see there are unintended consequences from banning firearms. It is a little known fact that New York’s “Conservation Fund” – the money that funds the State’s fish and wildlife management and protection programs – consists of money from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and money that comes from a federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition and on fishing tackle. That excise tax is collected at the point of manufacture and then doled out, under a program known as “Federal Aid”, by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to the states based upon their population and number of licensed sportsmen and women.
New York has received hundreds of millions of dollars since the program’s inception in the 1930s and most of that money comes from firearms and ammunition that isn’t used for hunting but rather for recreational shooting. Right now there is about $30 million of Federal Aid money in the Conservation Fund that the Budget Office won’t allow the DEC to spend. It is being set aside to create the appearance that the deficit is less than it actually is and doing that violates the rules.
While I had the privilege of serving as your DEC Commissioner under Gov. Pataki, the DEC had about 4,000 employees or FTEs (full time equivalents) whose job it was to protect the quality of our environment. They did this by helping people and business comply with the myriad environmental laws and regulations and by managing our state’s renewable and non-renewable natural resources.
Since I left in 1997, the number of FTEs has dwindled from 4,000 to about 2,900 under democratic administrations. During that same period the number of laws and regulations the agency is expected to administer has increased. That means that fewer people are expected to provide the same level of environmental protection while being asked to take on ever increasing responsibility. Simply put, that math doesn’t work. The only way, without increasing DEC’s budget, to make it work would be to roll back the present environmental laws and regulations. Is that what you want to see happen?
There are fewer DEC staffers available to process the permits necessary for business either to expand or start or for people to build a home or install a dock. How can we expect to attract new business when we can’t service the business we have? Those opposed to “manufacturing” in the area offer tourism as an alternative. Who’s watching the “tourism store”?
Part of upstate’s tourism is based upon its quality fishing and hunting opportunities. In order to maintain or improve those opportunities we must rely upon the DEC wildlife and fisheries biologists to maintain quality wildlife habitat for all wildlife, both hunted and non-hunted, and to keep our fish hatcheries operating at full capacity. That simply isn’t happening and will continue to decline if the proposed budget is agreed upon.
This leads me to the question “Where have all the marchers gone?” We march on Albany to protest things we oppose, e.g. fracking or the ban on assault weapons. But where are we when the very core of what we hold dear is threatened?
Without a viable DEC to stand tall for our environment on our behalf, we all stand to lose. In other words, if you want a viable tourism industry we need a strong DEC. If you want the best safeguards if fracking is allowed, we need a strong DEC. If you enjoy birding, hunting or fishing, we need a strong DEC. If you want to expand or start a business, we need a strong DEC.
The proposed budget affords a unique opportunity for all of us (sportsmen and women, other conservationists, environmentalists and business) interested in New York’s environment and the things that rely upon it being healthy to join together as a united front and exert political pressure on the Governor and Legislature to not only restore the $58 million to DEC’s budget but to restore the agency’s former capability and to allow the DEC to spend what it needs from the Conservation Fund (non-taxpayer dollars).
Teddy Roosevelt once said: “Conservation makes for strange bedfellows”. Let’s prove him right and join forces on behalf of our environment and the wildlife that depend upon it for survival.
Michael D. Zagata of West Davenport is a former commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.