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Field Notes

Field Notes are the monthly notes written by PA Game Commission wildlife conservation officers, about notable experiences and interactions they’ve had on the job, out in the field.  And you know that for those folks, men and women, out in the field is truly out there in the wild.  Their descriptions of encounters with people and wildlife are unique and often funny.

Field Notes are published monthly in the PGC’s Game News magazine, and for all of my hunting life (1973 until now), one person really summed up Field Notes and gave them pizzazz, making them my first-read in the magazine.

That was artist Nick Rosato, whose funny illustrations in Field Notes came to epitomize and symbolize the life and lighter side of wildlife law enforcement.  Rosato’s humorous, rustically themed sketches summed up a WCO’s life of enforcing the law against sometimes recalcitrant bad guys, while maintaining an empathy usually reserved for naughty school children, when first-time offenders were involved and a slap on the wrist was needed.

Rosato died this summer, and his art will no longer grace the pages of Game News.  I will miss Rosato’s humor and skill, because for most of my life he helped paint the human dimension of officers who are too often seen as gruff, grumpy, and unnecessarily strict law enforcers.

Speaking of WCOs, a couple years ago I was hunting during deer rifle season when I encountered a WCO I knew.  He had a deer on the back of his vehicle and we stopped to chat and catch up with each other.  Out of nowhere, I asked him to please check me, as in check my license, my gun, my ammunition.

Getting “checked” by WCOs and deputy WCOs is a pretty common experience for most Pennsylvania hunters, but the truth is, I have never been checked by anyone in my 42 years of hunting.

“Sorry, Josh, I just do not have the time.  You will have to wait ’til later or until you meet another WCO out here,” he responded.

With that he smiled, waved, and drove off to follow through on his deer poaching investigation.

I think that encounter should be a Field Note, Terry.  It is probably a first.

Maybe this year I will be “checked,” but perhaps having every single license and stamp available to the Pennsylvania hunter, and hunting only when and where I am supposed to hunt, somehow creates a karma field that makes WCOs avoid me.

Speaking of hunting experiences, yesterday morning Ed and I were goose hunting on the Susquehanna River.  Out in the middle of the widest part, we were alone, sitting on some rocks, chatting about our families, professional work, politics and culture, religion.  Our time together can best be summed up as “Duck Blind Poetry,” because it ain’t pretty, but it is soulful.  Two dads together, sharing life’s experiences and challenges, makes hunting much more than killing.

While we were noting the Susquehanna River’s recent and incredible decline in animal diversity, we suddenly saw four white Great Egrets fly across our field of view, followed by three wood ducks.  Intrigued, we began speculating on where they had all been hiding, when out of nowhere a mature bald eagle appeared on the horizon.  It flapped its way over us and clearly was on the hunt.  So that was why the other birds had quickly flown out of Dodge!

Seeing these wild animals interact with each other was another enjoyable example of how hunting is much, much more than killing.

Unfortunately, during that serene time afield, I introduced my cell phone to the Susquehanna River, and have found myself nearly shut off from communications ever since.  While the phone dries off in a bath of rice, I am enjoying a sort of enforced relaxation.  Please don’t think my lack of responses to calls and texts is rudeness.  I am merely clumsy.  Let’s not make that a Field Note.

 

Natural resource envy

Being a conservationist, I’m on a bunch of email lists about conservation, natural resources, environmental protection.

Why and how groups send emails decrying natural resource companies, while happily using those same resources, like oil, coal, and natural gas, is beyond comprehension.

Oil and gas companies serve a demand by consumers who want their cars to run, their stoves to cook.

Coal powered electricity is ubiquitous. It runs hospitals and schools, as well as your home and place of business.

Somehow, in a twisted way, the companies supplying the power are “bad,” and the consumers are off the hook. As if these companies operate in a vacuum.

Credibility suffers when you’ve got two or more standards for the same behavior.  It’s sad because environmental quality is important. My request to conservatives is to not dismissively abandon the field of battle, and don’t let the far left define or frame the issue, either.  And don’t let the leftist groups get away with demonization of companies the world depends upon, unless those same groups are willing to generate their own power and transportation fuels.

Take a kid fishing

Tomorrow marks the beginning of trout season in Pennsylvania. It’s a big deal. Half the population is associated with it, either fishing, eating the fish, or cheering on the mighty hunters who bring home the bacon.

Our next generation needs a helping hand. Too many gadgets, electronics, virtual nothingness and digital pretend friends are separating kids from the beautiful reality surrounding them. They might grow up to think that water comes from the tap, heat from the wall thingy, and food from the grocery store. Fishing teaches crucial lessons about being a real human being, not the least of which is self reliance, a trait once quintessentially American and now considered quaint.

Fishing also teaches the importance of conserving natural resources for the future kids.

So take a kid fishing. You’ll be doing everyone a big favor, now and later.

 

PGC: Great, Old Agency Unused to Modern Limelight

If there is one take-away from my many years in federal and state government jobs, it is that agency staff cultures change slowly.  In Pennsylvania, a great example of this is one of my favorite agencies, the Pennsylvania Game Commission.  PGC is an agency that is used to doing things the way it wants, often relying on its impressive history as evidence for its present day independence and independent culture.

PGC is presently in the headlines because of a $200,000 payment to its former executive director, Carl Roe, now very recently departed of the agency.

I thought it was an amicable departure; maybe not.  PGC staff say this is a settlement to avoid a possible lawsuit.  Critics of the payment include the governor’s office, the PA Comptroller, the PA attorney general, and many elected officials.  They say this is a sidestep around the state’s prohibition of severance payments, made between a board of directors and an executive director who were actually very cozy with one another.

This is sad, because PGC is a storied agency, a trend-setter in the area of wildlife management, wildlife science, habitat management, and public land acquisition.  Something I like is that PGC has uniformed officers who stand in front of Hunter Trapper Education courses filled with 10-18-year-old kids, and tell them that they have a Second Amendment right to own firearms.  Few states in America have such a wonderful role for their uniformed law enforcement officers.  We are fortunate to have this agency with this culture, and it is for this reason that I oppose merging PGC with DCNR.  Ranger Rick and Smokey Bear are not going to purvey that valuable message.

The flip side of the culture is what is often described as a “bunker mentality” among the agency’s staff, and this payment to Roe probably fits in with that view.

Most agencies are careful to avoid controversy, especially controversy that does not have a strong basis.  This payment does not appear to have a strong basis, so it is an unnecessary controversy that is likely to damage the agency’s standing among lawmakers and executives, as well as the general public and hunters who otherwise happily buy hunting licenses to support their favorite agency.  It comes at a time when the agency is already under the gun from oversight legislation (HB 1576, which does not address actual problems, but rather imagined problems unrelated to PGC and PA Fish & Boat Commission).

Don’t get me wrong, I like Carl Roe, and PGC has also driven me nuts at times.  I clearly recall the day he was brought on to the agency as an intern.  Me, then PGC executive director Vern Ross, PGC biologist Gary Alt, Carl Roe, and senior PGC staffer Joe Neville drove together up to Bellefonte to participate in the swearing-in of a new PGC commissioner.  Carl struck me as a bright, quantitatively-oriented, inquisitive, experienced manager.  Over the years since that day I have had many opportunities to meet with Carl, and he has always impressed me as a stalwart and intelligent promoter of PGC, hunters, trappers, and wildlife conservation.  This huge payment lightning rod situation just does not make sense in that context.

But on second thought, this payment does make sense if the insular agency culture managed to eventually penetrate into Carl’s otherwise solid judgment.  That has been a phenomenon witnessed among other new PGC staff; the broad “something-is-in-their-water” observation that people’s personalities changed dramatically once they joined PGC. Other evidence of an insular culture was recently brought to my attention: Four of the agency’s biologists (all of whom have some or all of the deer program’s oversight) have graduate degrees from the same school and they studied at the same post-graduate field station.  And no, they ain’t from Penn State, or any Pennsylvania university, for that matter, dammit.

I fear for PGC, because at a time when the agency is already under scrutiny from HB 1576, this new payment debate threatens to add fuel to the flames, and add a straw onto the camel’s back.  Part of the culture driving these problems is the same kind of culture that can cause the roof to suddenly come down.  Careful there, boys, careful.

*******UPDATE:

So, as has happened before, these essays get read, and I get phone calls and emails.  People calling me usually do not want to post on the blog, being afraid of attribution, and frankly, what some other people want to post here is not always worth keeping.  So here is the gist of what came over the transom in the past half hour: Things between Carl Roe and the PGC board were not chummy.  The payment to him is seen as a real money-saver.  I am unsure how an at-will employee like an executive director has any real legal recourse, unless he is fired for his religion or political views, things that are a) hard to prove and b) unlikely.  Also, I neglected to mention that Roe had, indeed, given away about $300,000 in agency funds to Hawk Mountain (GREAT PLACE, but not necessarily deserving of big PGC money) and other groups. This unaccountable and unapproved largesse caused real friction between Roe and the board, not to mention the rest of the stakeholders whose donations to and purchases from PGC are expected to be spent in a pecuniary fashion.

Last day of Great American Outdoor Show

If you have not yet gone to the new Great American Outdoor Show, today’s the day.

Even if you’re not a hunter, there’s still much to see and do. The Farm Show complex is enormous and every hall is packed. RVs, campers, boats, fishing everything, mapping, GPS technology, clothing. Etc.

One thing I noticed last week was a booth full of furs also selling turtle shells. Whether or not these shells are from wild native turtles, illegal, or from some farmed non-native species, it disturbed me to see them. Turtles take a good ten years to reach maturity, when they can begin breeding. Their nests are subject to raids by raccoons, skunks, snakes, possums, and bears. ATVs and dirt bikes often are ridden over the soft soils turtles choose to lay their eggs.  Collectors grab them for illegal sales, dads take them home for their kids to see, etc.

You get the picture. Turtles don’t have it easy.

If there’s one thing missing from the GAOS, it’s an emphasis on land, water, and wildlife conservation. Plenty of emphasis on the taking part, not much on the conserving part. Maybe that’ll change at next year’s show.

Who is a “sportsman”?

Sportsmen were the nation’s first conservationists, advocating in the 1890s for sustainable harvests of previously unregulated birds, fish and animals like deer and bear. Acting against their own individual self-interests, they banded together to place limits on wildlife and habitat so that future generations would have opportunities to fish, hunt, camp, skinny dip, sight-see, wildlife watch, and help wildlife recover from 300 years of unregulated market hunting and industrial exploitation.

By the 1920s, a culture of stewardship and natural resource conservation was cemented into the sporting ranks by leaders like Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt, and Aldo Leopold. Hunting clubs across rural America incorporated stocking programs, tree planting, and facilitating public land purchases to improve and increase wildlife habitat.

Fast forward to today, where wildlife populations are largely stable, wildlife habitat is not in crisis mode, and hunters and anglers are experiencing the best opportunities to harvest trophy fish and game in many decades. We are living in a golden age of the outdoor lifestyle.

Riding on the successes of past generations, today there are some grumbling guys with guns, crabbing that they don’t have anything to hunt. The real shameful behavior is the recent abandonment by some of these men of the sportsman’s stewardship ethic and the conservation pledge that made the hunting community highly respected among the larger society. A group of disaffected users, takers, and malcontents calling themselves “sportsmen” recently endorsed HB 1576, a proposed Pennsylvania bill which would gut the very state agencies charged with protecting Pennsylvania’s natural resources, and remove from state protection those plants and animals necessary for healthy hunting habitat.

The question on the table is, Are these men sportsmen? Are they sportsmen like Aldo Leopold was a sportsman?

While I wait to hear back from others, my answer is No, these men are not sportsmen. They are simply men with guns, freeloaders, spoiled children living off the hard work of both past and present generations, while complaining it isn’t enough and they want more, now, dammit. Their behavior is short-sighted and embarrassing, nothing like the visionary selfless sacrifice of their forebears. They should be publicly shamed and drummed out of the ranks of sportsmen.

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“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
― Aldo Leopold

Good luck today, deer hunters

Like many Pennsylvania families today, ours went afield for the morning. My son, having watched an enormous buck run past us in the early morning dark, minutes before shooting light, decided his feet were cold enough and it was time for him to head in.
None in our hunting party got a shot off, yet, but we are gearing up for an afternoon drive, usually productive.
Good luck today, deer hunters! Hunt safely!

Want to add beauty to the world?

If you want to add some beauty to the world, and who doesn’t, then do this simple thing: Let milkweed grow on your property.

Monarch butterflies follow the world’s most incredible migration, but they are increasingly challenged by unnecessary weed control and manicured lawns that eliminate milkweed.

Why milkweed became Public Enemy Weed #1 is probably lost to early 1900s history. But the negative association in most Americans’ minds keeps it suppressed far and wide.

In an urban and suburban environment, milkweed is no worse than the ailanthus (“tree of heaven”) growing everywhere, and it provides a home for beautiful butterflies that make our summers happier and more fulfilling.

So if you see a patch of milkweed growing on your back corner, please leave it. Beauty on wings will thank you, and that miraculous journey will continue for another year.

Good news for American farmers, food consumers

America’s farmland is not only the cultural heartland, it is the bread basket of our nation.

You know the old saw: No farms, no beer. No farms, no food. No farms, no watersheds, and on and on…

So let’s ask: When our flat farmland is built on, will America import tainted, contaminated food from China? Will America become food-dependent, too, on top of importing most of our transportation fuel? What kinds of vulnerabilities come with being so dependent on others, especially on nations and people who do not share our values or ways?

So it brings me great satisfaction to see Andrew McElwaine become the new president of American Farmland Trust (http://www.farmland.org/news/pressreleases/2013/AFT-New-President-Andrew-McElwaine.asp).

AFT is America’s premier farmland preservation advocacy group. I knew Ralph Grassi, AFT’s founder, from way back in my Washington, DC days. Ralph was able to narrate his own family’s farmland preservation efforts and reasons, and he had charisma, too, so when AFT testified before Congress, or held a farmland preservation event, elected officials from both parties listened, and acted, and the public dug deep into their wallets.

Since Ralph left AFT and returned to his family ranch in Marin County, California, AFT has been on a slow, quiet identity quest that culminated with financial challenges that could be ignored no longer.

Enter Andrew McElwaine, probably America’s best non-profit turnaround guru with a conservation streak a mile wide. Andrew’s bio is easily available online, so I won’t expound upon it here, but what should be noted is that he has turned around or dramatically grown both the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Heading to Washington, DC, brings him back into the conservation policy world he knows and loves so well, and gives him an opportunity to work his financial magic once again.

American farmland needs an advocate. Andrew McElwaine is the man for the job. At a time of tight finances and faltering, struggling non-profit conservation groups, Andrew’s arrival at AFT is an unusual breath of welcome and needed good news. Now saddle up, pardner, ’cause the ride ahead is gonna be long and hard…

Federal assault on land conservation continues…no surprise

Gathering enormous momentum over the past four years is an all-out assault on land conservation by the federal government. Led by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), charitable donations of land and land development value across America have been subject to incredible scrutiny and disdainful investigators who repeatedly assert that the donations of real property literally have zero value.

Private citizens defending their generous charitable contributions often spend tens of thousands of dollars. When they win in court, the IRS agents just walk away and start again with someone else.

The investigations and audits by the IRS have spawned hundreds of lawsuits by charitable donors who feel rooked, first by having donated real property value said to be worth nothing, and then by having their own government turn against their generosity.

The donors are Americans of every walk of life, from urban elites with rural second properties, to poor dirt farmers trying to preserve the home farm and their way of life. Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, and every little local land trust in between Bangor, Maine, and Santa Barbara, California is subject to this onslaught and Gestapo tactics.

It is difficult to accept that protecting America’s inspiring landscape through private donations to registered charities is such a problem that the IRS must expend hundreds of millions of dollars on it every year. And yet the agency’s juggernaut rolls on. We aren’t talking about junk cars worth $300 in parts being claimed for $3,000. Rather, the donations run from tens of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars, carefully appraised by certified real estate appraisers.

Tax courts have repeatedly taken dim views of the investigations’ impetus and the IRS’s conclusions, often rebuking the government’s cases from the basic claims all the way through its reasoning, evidence, and methodology. It hasn’t stopped the IRS.

Why, one might ask, is this happening, even gathering steam, during the reign of such a perfect presidential administration? You know, the one which gets constant kudos, plaudits, and free passes from the usual array of environmental advocacy groups that during the Bush administration didn’t miss a second of the constant drum beat against their (alleged, supposed, manufactured, and yes, often real) faults and failures…Not that those environmental advocacy groups could ever, ever be accused of being partisan….

Here is one theory: Barack Obama hates private wealth, he hates private property, and he hates the idea that wealthy people can donate real estate value and be big heroes for it. Land conservation is very much the realm of wealthy blue bloods, big Republican foundations, land-rich-cash-poor ranchers and farmers who haven’t voted for a Democrat in oh, a few decades, and plenty of gun owners and outdoorsmen. In other words, land conservationists are mostly comprised of the very people Obama calls “enemies.”

Land conservation is underwritten and mostly run from stem to stern by the people most symbolic of America’s traditional modes of success: Land and natural resources. These are the people most at odds with Obama’s views of economics, wealth, and supposed historic injustices. So we can expect this assault on land conservation to continue. And we can expect the nakedly partisan advocacy groups who pretend to be neutral on natural resource conservation to continue to give this administration a 100% pass.