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Carmen Macdonald

A passion for fishing and hunting grew into a career that's included Alaskan guide, media sales, writer and the politics of outdoor recreation. My company, Vaunt Marketing, represents industry-leading brands in the US and Canadian markets.

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May 12, 2014

ODFW Budget: Where The Rubber Meets The Road

by Carmen Macdonald

Back in the early 1970's, my family used to make an annual summer pilgrimage from our suburb of Pittsburg to Jekyl Island, Georgia for a summer vacation. Being the youngest of five kids, I was in the sure position of being relegated to the back of the station wagon for the trip, camped out on top of suit cases and competing for space against our brittany spaniel.

The soundtrack from these marathon trips is forever etched in my brain. I have nearly instant recall of random songs from the seventies, sometimes at really weird moments.

As I've followed the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's budget proceedings, Mary MacGregor has been a fixture I've been unable to shake.

"Torn between two lovers, feelin' like a fool. Lovin' both of you, is breakin' all the rules."

While I can't shake the songs that pop up, they don't necessarily come with an explanation of why they've chosen the moment to pop up. That takes some sorting out.

Over the last decades, the Oregon Department of Fish and WIldlife has been on a steady reduction of General Fund dollars and become largely funded directly by anglers and hunters. Even the large pool of "Federal" dollars that are received by the agency are derived from anglers and hunters in the form of Dingell-Johnson and Pitman-Robertson funds. These are both excise taxes paid by manufacturers on all the fishing and hunting goods we as consumers by. These monies are redistributed to the states based upon the number of fishing and/or hunting licenses sold.

Commercial fisheries are exempt from Dingell-Johnson taxes, that's why you see tags that say "For Commercial Use Only" on some of the gear in commercial outlets. It's untaxed and does not contribute to management or conservation.

For the record, I'm completely okay with hunters and anglers paying the freight for ODFW, as long as ODFW is both demonstrative of its commitment to the needs of this community and delivers to the best of its ability.

But increasingly, that's not the case.

To look at what's transpired, we have to backtrack two decades in fisheries. In the 1980's and early 1990's Oregon was a destination fishery for 10's of thousands. Counter to today's fisheries, ocean coho where a mega-driver of participation and fiberglass ocean boats were as common on the coast as aluminum sleds.

Harvest levels were egregious.

In 1993, the bottom fell out. Over-harvest met the most persistent El Nino (a warm water event that suppresses cold water upwelling off the coast, starves the environment and crushes juvenile salmonid survival) ever recorded and the bottom fell out from fisheries.

On the backs of closures, license sales dropped 41,000 in 1994. Rather than wait out the storm and modify harvest levels, the fish were listed. Then Oregon Trout, which included leadership that went on to be: Governor Kitzhaber's natural resource director, the founder of the Native Fish Society and the Executive Director of the Wild Salmon Center, indicted hatchery fish, not El Nino, as the driver of the decline.

For coastal Oregon, three initiatives were undertaken:
1. Harvest rates on coho were cut from as high as 80-90% of the adult population to less than 20%.
2. The largest habitat restoration plan, The Oregon Plan For Salmon, was initiated.
3. Coastal hatchery plants of silver salmon were virtually eliminated.

By 1998, license sales had dropped by more than 87,000, 13%- kaboom.

El Nino ended. Fish runs bounced back. But the 6 million hatchery coho that drove coastal fisheries were gone. Coastal communities have not recovered to this day.

But coastal coho were not the only component of the story. Hatchery fish were targeted far and wide. We reduced and/or eliminated steelhead plants. We cut stream trout programs in droves (remember when rivers were planted with hatchery trout?). We cut programs galore. Certainly that should have saved some money, but it didn't.

We initiated a whole new entity within ODFW, the Conservation and Recovery Program. From layers and layers of labor-intensive studies and monitoring, we're developing reams of reports and insight. Later, we built a world-class research facility in the Oregon Hatchery Research Center and funded it with license dollars. The only problem with both these efforts are they costs a fortune and none of it is putting any more anglers on the water.

Remember them, the people that pay for this stuff?

And there's the crux. The public at large loves the concepts of biodiversity and ecological balance, but they're not paying for it. They want nature to balance itself, in harmony, yet they appear to miss the fact that we've all moved in to nature's house.

We have recovery plans for salmon that, in cases like the Willamette system, are laughable.

We're hog-tied by the Marine Mammel Protection act in the face of a marine mammal population that has exploded exponentially. We have the Migratory Bird Act, though it's been federal projects that have created problems with avian predators.

We have conservation biologists where we need managers. We have biologists who have no understanding of anglers or hunters.

Biodiversity is a worthy goal. I can see where I'm setting myself up to be lambasted by the "see he just wants to kill everything" crowd.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I'm all for these efforts, a lighter touch and biodiversity, granted:

a. We're quantifying results from them, but we're not. We've initiated lots of hatchery restructuring based upon showing results to wild fish. None of it has been effective, and yet we continue these efforts with a direct negative result to participation and funding. I'm sure there are similar efforts on the wildlife side.

b. You don't ask me to shoulder the responsibility to pay for it all, and they are. These are the two lovers of ODFW and the surrounding political landscape. Over decades we've weened General Fund dollars from the agency, yet increased the responsibilities of the agency beyond components of fishing and hunting.

Want to balance a fish and wildlife budget on anglers and hunters? Embrace fish for fishing, and game to hunt.

As a country we've got a Bambi hangover, and this is much of the other side of the equation- we don't value the sporting life. Released in 1942, along with increasing urbanization, Bambi and more recently the 1970's images of the clubbing of baby harp seals, and even more recently the Discovery Channel (original documentary version, not what exists today) have created generations of charged emotion surrounding fishing and hunting. For some great thoughts on Bambi, see the 1992 article, The Trouble With Bambi

The emotion has brought us into this quest for "ecotopia." With biologists doing "God's work," we will atone for the sins of our fathers.

The problem with this path is that nature is ugly. Nature "balances" the ecosystem with catastrophic events: famine, disease and all forms of horrifying death. It includes great swings of the pendulum between prey and predator, spending very little of reality in the middle.

This is not management; it's the absence of it. Wolves are wonderfully romantic creatures. They're also refined killers and add nothing to the financial stability of Oregon, ODFW, and the conservation mission of the agency, because again, the mission is funded by anglers and hunters.

A couple comments that I've heard all too often include:
1. The agency (ODFW) first and foremost is responsible for the conservation of species above all else.
2. If everybody on all sides of debates are a little bit unhappy, the policy must be pretty good, falling right in the middle.

On the first one, that's wrong. By statute, use of resources and conservation are co-equals. It is okay to have an impact on wild populations with hatchery programs. Hatchery programs have not and will not drive wild fish to extinction as has become the pop-culture of those that would turn rivers into museums. According to ODFW documents, hatcheries return $76 for every single state dollar invested in the program. Participation is critical to funding the conservation mission, without it, there is no conservation mission.

On the second, it can also mean that the policy is no good and lacks underpinnings. This is a question of leadership. Does it feel to anybody else that ODFW does not have a driver at the wheel? At what point do you discover the potential of a 34 million dollar shortfall? Who is out in front on this, what is the plan that has been being followed? What were the expectations?

It's a difficult position for a government agency, which serves at the will of the Governor and legislature, to demonstrate strong leadership. Nevertheless, Directors of government agencies rise to this position knowing what comes with the job. They should be willing to chart a path and take the responsibility for its success or failure. Has Director Roy Elicker embodied this?

Has anybody seen or heard from or about the Deputy Director of the agency, Kurt Melcher, since he took the position?

I love Oregon. When I came to this state in 1984, it seemed we understood that we had levied numerous injustices against the available habitat for the sake of the people living here, but at the same time we were committed to managing a balanced approach to fisheries and hunting. Currently, we have an agency that is responsible for the status of fish and game, but has no real purview to effect change. ODFW can talk habitat, but they don't manage the land. They can talk about stream flows, but they don't manage the water.

Anglers and hunters see ODFW looking for more money to provide less. I have to agree. Pull back the curtain and that's all that's there. On the fishing side, ODFW manages hatcheries and harvest, and have chosen to reduce the hatchery component though it doesn't define the status of wild populations, and that cut immediately impacts harvest….it's really pretty simple.

In all that I've read from groups like Cascadia Wildlands, Oregon Wild and the Native Fish Society, they add nothing. They seek to take from those who largely fund the conservation mission and offer nothing in return.

The way out of this mess is in some broad level leadership decisions.

1. Is Oregon going to embrace fishing or not? If so, it takes fish. If not, let's just make that decision and get on with it instead of perpetuating this façade that removing hatchery programs is actual management.

2. Is the Governor or the Department going to lead on the tough issues? Marine mammals, avian predators, ill-advised cougar legislation, wolves, unfunded mandates- these topics are all in the red in the budget columns. It's going to take some leadership to get out of this mess.

3. Who will fund the future of the agency? A birdseed tax to fund non-game bird management has been shot down twice in the legislature. Non-game enthusiasts are vocal with demands, silent on funding.

Maybe we need a dog food tax to fund wolf management? I see the amazing commentary as people ooze over wolf reintroduction…he buddy, how about you pony up?

Overall, something has to change. If everyone's views are important, everyone ought to be willing to pitch in. Unfunded mandates are killing ODFW. Legislators love to deliver a pet project and sportsmen's license fees are going all directions, and more and more of those directions have nothing to do with fishing and hunting.

If the contributions of the sporting community to the lifestyle and economy of the State of Oregon is not going to be valued, I regrettably have to live with that. At this point of budget discussion, I can however, my viewpoints heard to the best of my ability.

I'm not a fan of Governor John Kitzhaber. I believe he fancies himself an angler, but those press clips are a long time gone. He led a lot of policy in his first two terms, but I don't believe the man has offered the results of those policies more than a casual view. These policies have bee destructive far in excess of any restorative qualities that were hoped from them. And yet, it appears in efforts like the Coastal Multi-Species Plan, his intention is to serve Oregonians more of the same.

Kitzhaber is responsible for much of the sitting Commission. His appointees have been anemic. The Commission in total has been anemic. They are the governor's voice in the process and they are completely and totally lackluster. If Governor Kitzhaber valued the sporting community that funds the agency, there are dozens of candidates that could lead ODFW out of the hole by focusing on the customer.

ODFW budget conversations are an opportunity for anglers and hunters to take a stand. This department is trending further and further away from those who fund its mission. They take your money, then run to other lovers. Governor Kitzhaber, the ODFW Commission and ODFW staff need to make a strong and renewed commitment to their core customers, or go get the money they need from those that make demands, while offering nothing.

I hope to see you at one of the Department's public meetings.

ODFW Budget Meetings Schedule

Monday, May 19
7 pm – 8:30 pm
Monarch Hotel
12566 Se 93rd Ave

La Grande
Tuesday, May 20

7 pm – 8:30 pm
Blue Mountain Conference Center
404 12th Street
La Grande

Wednesday, May 21

7 pm – 8:30 pm
Central Oregon Community College
Boyle Education Building, Room 155
2600 NW College Way

Thursday May 22nd

Tillamook Office of the Dept. of Forestry
Next door to the ODFW and next to the Tillamook County Fair Grounds on 3rd st
(info courtesy of Jerry Dove)

Thursday, May 22

7 pm – 8:30 pm
Hallmark Inn
744 SW Elizabeth Street

Coos Bay/North Bend
Tuesday, May 27

7 pm – 8:30 pm
North Bend Public Library
1800 Sherman Avenue
North Bend

Wednesday, May 28

7 pm – 8:30 pm
ODFW Office
4192 N Umpqua Hwy

Klamath Falls
Thursday, May 29

7 pm – 8:30 pm
Oregon Institute of Technology
College Union Bldg., Mt. Bailey Room
3201 Campus Drive
Klamath Falls

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