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Will Elliott: DEC stirs controversy

National Hunting and Fishing Day, held on the last Saturday/weekend in September for the last 42 years, serves as a showcase for the good things hunters and anglers do with and for our natural resources and as a means of interesting and recruiting new participants in these pursuits.

Gatherings set up across the country and around Western New York offer programs with the support of fish and wildlife agencies and help from public and private sponsors and volunteers.

Every year, DEC Region 8 at Avon has provided its 72-acre grounds, with two ponds of two and 15 acres, as a site for celebrating this national event. Livingston County Federation of Sportsmen’s Club members have provided volunteer assistance since its start in 1972, and, as a result of DEC budgetary constraints, Livingston County Fed members have provided increased exhibit and staffing assistance for this event.

With no public announcement or discussion of options, DEC Region 8 Director Paul D’Amato sent a letter on March 17 to Mark Osypian, Livington Sportsmen Club president, informing him that the regional office will no longer “continue to host National Hunting and Fishing Day at this property.”

D’Amato, offering limited specifics, cited the level of staff effort, the recent retirement of a key operations employee, concerns about “vendor activities and possible liability issues” and staff resources are such “that we feel we no longer have the luxury of providing,” D’Amato wrote.

This cancellation was disclosed in detail when Sportsmen Club vice president Robert A. Ciecierega provided an email report two weeks ago. Rochester talk show host Bob Lonsberry invited Ciecierega on his program. They discussed the event cancellation but not details of the DEC’s reasons for the withdrawal of a temporary permit that must be issued each year the event is held at Region 8 headquarters.

Beginning Monday, director D’Amato’s office was called daily until Thursday for specifics and/or a comment. A call to the Region 8 media (citizen participation) office on Thursday received a similar response. No reply. Lonsberry had the same results. “I couldn’t get past the secretary,” he wrote in an email.

Communications on this and other fish and wildlife issues/items have been difficult since Gov. Cuomo imposed a procedural process requiring media persons to connect with an office of media specialists before interviewing professional government employee/specialists.

Shortly after Joseph “Joe” Martens was appointed DEC Commissioner in March 2011, numerous outdoor writers at a conference gathering appealed to Martens to have this policy altered to permit media access to responsible, competent DEC officials who plan and conduct programs and who work the waters, fields and forests in which the outdoors-involved public is interested. Martens left it saying, “We’ll look into it.”

More than four years later Martens’ office was called about the Region 8 National Hunting and Fishing Day permit cancelation. All calls resulted in a series of busy signals earlier this week. Two detailed emails and a call to the DEC media office did not result in a reply by Friday.

Clearly, a breakdown in public information sharing is in place here. Writers and reporters are left to speculate on DEC experts’ information. In the Region 8 event cancellation, the only details and commentary available came from Livingston County Sportsmen’s Club officials and others not currently DEC employees.

In Ciercierega’s email he comments, “The DEC upper management is not a friend of our sportsmen and women, and does not support hunting and fishing initiatives as they falsely advertise in all their camouflaged pro-hunting programs.”

Curiously, as retired Region 8 program coordinator Ron Schroder points out: “This contradicts the ‘open to hunting and fishing’ message from Gov. Cuomo included in DEC press releases.” Schroder, a key organizer of the event for decades before his retirement in 2002, noted that even before his departure DEC operations staffers “could not see the good of National Hunting & Fishing Day.”

For example, while the DEC is supported with license-fee funds and promotes the sale of sporting licenses, Region 8 officials gradually phased out the sale of hunting and fishing licenses at the event. Today, a person can purchase any sporting license at Region 9 headquarters in Buffalo, but one must go to a Wal-Mart or elsewhere in Region 8. Hunting and fishing licenses are not sold at the Avon Headquarters.

Ultimately, this lack of Region 8 transparency begins at the top, requiring major changes in administrative policy in the governor’s office and DEC Albany headquarters that will eventually affect the nine regional offices and the outdoors-involved public the DEC serves.

For now, National Hunting and Fishing Day events will be held this year at Mumford Sportsmen’s Club in Caledonia, but don’t call the DEC Region 8 office for details.