Merging parks, wildlife

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper isn’t the first chief executive of this state to consider recombining the state Division of Wildlife and the State Parks Division into a single agency.

But his proposal, announced just last week, is moving forward with what amounts to break-neck speed in the legislative world. Barring unforeseen obstacles in the Legislature this year, the two agencies will nominally merge on July 1.

But the details of that merger will be hammered out over the remainder of this year, and will be enacted through legislation in 2012.

Conceptually, the plan is sensible. It would save the state $3 million to $4 million a year at a time when the state is scrambling to find every penny of budget savings possible.

Furthermore, the two agencies were part of one division from 1963 to 1972. And a number of other states have combined wildlife and parks divisions that function well.

But our support for the plan comes with several caveats. These concerns were developed in conversations with three local residents who have far more experience than we do with the two agencies: Rebecca Frank and Tom Burke, who between them served more than two decades on the Colorado Wildlife Commission; and Tom Kenyon, who worked 31 years for State Parks, spent 15 years as deputy director and twice was acting director.

All three were cautiously optimistic about the merger. Here are some of their concerns, and ours:

✔ First, protect the resources. Any reduction in personnel, through attrition, should come in administrative and clerical positions, not among those who manage resources in the field. Colorado’s wildlife is second to none, and hunting and fishing have an economic impact estimated at $3 billion. Our 42 state parks offer great outdoor recreation at an afforadble price. We can’t allow these to diminish through the merger.

✔ Different funding sources must be protected. State Parks receives money from Colorado’s general fund, but the Division of Wildlife receives none. It is primarily funded from hunting and fishing license fees. The license fees can’t be used to replace general funds that state parks may be losing. Also, several federal programs and Great Outdoors Colorado provide money for specific purposes. That money will have to be carefully accounted for.

✔ Merging the two oversight boards — the Colorado Wildlife Commission and State Parks Board — will require finesse. In addition to geographical representation, there are stakeholders who must be represented, such as agricultural and sportsmen groups.

✔ Cooperative use of personnel can help save money, but there are limits. Most wildlife officers, for example, are trained in biology or other sciences that are critical to wildlife management. And urban park rangers have skills that wildlife officers may not.

Like the experts we consulted, we believe the merger can work to save money without significantly impairing the high performance we have come to expect from both agencies. But how that plays out will only become clear as more details emerge in coming months.


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