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Pheasant farm granted a reprieve

Outdoors issues come and go. Public responses vary from ho-hum to hot-button. But no single issue flew more in the face of sportsmen and government officials than the much-debated debacle that evolved from the governor's decision to close the Reynolds Game Farm, a move he later retracted.

When the governor made his announcement in December, I contacted many state officials in Albany and wrote a tweaking column to Gov. David A. Paterson about the absurdity of closing the last state-managed pheasant farm and his need for better insider information before making counter-productive, disastrous decisions concerning conservation matters.

Others took more aggressive steps to seek out the source of this decision and appeal to the governor to retain this sportsmen-funded, cost-effective pheasant/game bird production site.

Finally, enough pressure resulted in an order to retain the facility for at least a one-year term. Much of that pressure came from hunters and conservation-minded sportsmen appealing to area legislators and directly to the governor.

State Sen. Catharine Young, a Republican from Jamestown, announced after the restoration: "Gov. Paterson now has asked DEC to formulate a long-term solution that sustains hunting and fishing programs."

What happened? Not one official at DEC headquarters in Albany would discuss the source of the initial recommendation to the governor. The Conservation Fund Advisory Board (CFAB) gathers representatives statewide to look at concerns such as the pheasant program and make recommendations.

"We were told nothing about the source or reasons [beyond budget cuts] for the closing," Western New York CFAB representative Dale Dunkelburger said after the decision was announced.

From DEC Commissioner Grannis to the latest hire at Reynolds, no one would make a statement. Finally, one DEC insider supplied me with some facts on the closing.

More information was supplied by Albany-area outdoors writer Dick Nelson. He pinpointed the main source for the decision as the office of Judith Enck, who had been appointed deputy secretary of the environment during the Spitzer administration.

Nelson cited Enck as the bottleneck in retaining state-backed pheasant production. He also noted that Enck's husband, Mark Dunlea, serves as executive director of the Hunger Action Network of New York State.

The closure plan would have released the sportsmen-purchased, state-owned pheasants to food-bank programs such as Hunger Action. Enck's office would neither confirm nor deny to The News this plan.

Harold Palmer, president of the New York State Conservation Council, met with Enck after the closure announcement. "At the time, she said [state environmental officials] won't purchase birds once the facility was closed and have no plans for pheasant production," Palmer recalls of Enck's response to appeals in support of the farm and pheasant programs.

This move was prompted by the governor asking all state agencies to cut 10 percent from their budgets. Commissioner Grannis spoke to sportsmen's groups about these forthcoming cuts throughout the fall of 2008.

Enck serves as boss of Grannis and all other fish-and-wildlife personnel managing conservation/environment programs. The decision that reportedly came out of her office flew purely on apparent economic bases.

The fact the Reynolds facility costs the state about $750,000 a year to operate made it a convenient target. But the ill-advised pheasant farm decision overlooks the need to pay some $440,000 for retained support staff and for field maintenance needed for upkeep of a non-functioning farm that generated programs that once brought in about $36 million in revenue.

The amounts vary, but hunters pay dearly for license fees, dedicated taxes, travel, lodging, food and other expenses on pheasant hunts in New York State.

Talk has it that Enck is being tapped for a position with the Environmental Protection Agency, which would remove her from office. Gov. Paterson can then appoint another to serve as deputy secretary of the environment.

Perhaps he will do as well for sportsmen in appointing a deputy secretary of the environment as he did in appointing a replacement U.S. senator who turned out to be a card-carrying NRA member who strongly supports Second Amendment rights.

For now, Palmer's NYSCC, the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, Conservation Alliance of NYS, and other sporting groups and interested individuals are looking at ways to sustain and expand hunting and fishing programs while reducing sportsmen-supported Conservation Fund debt.

It's an easy shot to say state agencies are dysfunctional and officials have individual and personal agendas when they make environmental conservation decisions. It's even easier to sit back and let protest-prone types dog public officials to do the right thing with public-owned things such as pheasant farms, fish hatcheries and access sites for anglers, hunters, bird watchers, hikers, and all others.

Anti-hunting factions suffered a setback with the retention of Reynolds. Informed sportsmen and women spoke up enough to cause the governor to reverse his decision on the Reynolds Farm closure.

Now, along with a strong voice in decisions, we need greater sources of funds dedicated to these facilities and programs -- with or without the right decision makers in place. Sportsmen fees increases, anyone?


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