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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.

Do you believe in your private property rights?

Isn’t it intriguing that the establishment wings of both the Democrats and the Republicans believe that your private property rights are actually theirs?

Several weeks ago, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party took a position on natural gas drilling in deep shales, saying that a moratorium on “fracking” is needed. That adds up to the government taking away from you the right and ability to develop a resource on your property, without compensating you and without demonstrating good cause.

When I inquired of a bewildered Democratic operative whether or not the proposed fracking moratorium would include nitrogen, or be limited to just water, he said “I don’t know, I don’t know. I cannot believe they did this. It makes no sense.” To be sure, it’s an indefensible and politically suicidal position. Unsurprisingly, I don’t believe any of the Democrat gubernatorial candidates have adopted this fatally flawed position.

This week, Republican Governor Tom Corbett signed into law a bill that, aside from two deadly sentences, was an otherwise fine solution to a lot of outstanding, unresolved problems associated with deep gas extraction.

Two deadly sentences are an issue, however, because they basically strip landowners\ oil, gas and mineral owners of their ability to negotiate new leases when the prior one has ended. The new law is a theft from you and a gift to a select industry. Gas is a good and necessary industry, for sure, but no more deserving of a free ride on someone else’s dime than you or I.

The arguments made in favor of what I would call ‘forced apportionment’ were ridiculous and laughable, except that so many private property rights have just been in effect taken and handed over to industry, so it is not funny. Apportionment is a term never used before in Pennsylvania OGM, and the 11th-hour two-sentence amendment to the bill lacks a definition of it. Surprise, surprise.

The worst argument is that by being forced into a “pool” of landowners, basically a fragmented production unit, this new law is guaranteeing that landowners will get paid (!). The state minimum payment, by the way. Never mind that you are due that payment already, and you’d prefer to renegotiate an expired lease on your own, thank you very much.

My sense is that these two sentences could cost Governor Tom Corbett his governorship and several lawmakers their seats. State representative Garth Everett and state senator Gene Yaw were the sponsors of the two sentences. Both are from Lycoming County, a place where private property rights are still held dearly and natural gas is plentiful.

How sad that the establishment wing of the Republican Party is so close to the Democrats that they adopt policies that are practically the same….

Next up, the courts will undoubtedly weigh in on this new law. Let’s hope they save the Republicans from themselves.

Your Property Rights: Born, and Maybe Dead, on the Fourth of July

Your Private Property Rights: Born, and Possibly Died, on the Fourth of July
July 4, 2013
By Josh First

One hundred and fifty years ago today, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, America’s most hallowed ground was established. Over fifty thousand casualties among both Union and Confederate forces resulted from fierce acts of bravery and heroism on both sides over just a few days, including Pickett’s famous last-ditch assault on the Union center, into the teeth of point-blank cannon fire, canister, and grape shot.

The ferocious hand-to-hand fighting along Pickett’s front established the “high water mark” of the Confederacy, and produced the most focused military effort to date by the Union, the success of which gave impetus to the North’s final push to end a malingering war. To make those sacrifices and take those personal risks, you’ve got to really believe in something, a truth summed up brilliantly in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The fact that the battle culminated on Independence Day was not lost on either side.

Ten years ago, I had the honor of purchasing the last outstanding parcel of land on which Pickett’s Charge occurred, at the far eastern end of the field, where the Ohio 8th Regiment was dug in. Over the prior 19 years, the National Park Service had unsuccessfully pursued the “Home Sweet Home” motel, a 1950s-era no-tell hotel on two acres there. It paved over a hasty trench and a temporary field hospital where men from both armies had been treated, before archaeology became vogue.

By 2004, the motel and its blacktop were themselves things of the past, the site archaeology was done, and the final resting place of so many distinguished soldiers was returned to serene grass. It was one of the high points of my career, and I worked so hard on it because, like other Americans who visit Gettysburg, read the Gettysburg Address, and understand Gettysburg’s role, its meaning inspired me. Preserving the Union meant continuing and expanding the American dream. Protecting the Home Sweet Home site meant preserving Gettysburg’s symbolism, protecting that hallowed ground, and enshrining the American Dream of opportunity for all.

One of the most inspiring aspects of America, and core to the American Dream, is the universal concept of private property rights. Because of America’s unique private property rights system, generations of immigrants have moved across mountains and oceans to become Americans, toil hard, and take risks and make sacrifices to improve their standard of living. For hundreds of years, anyone who was willing to work hard could use their private property rights to shelter and feed their family, purchase an education for their children, and build equity for the day when their hands and back might no longer be able to physically toil.

But here in Pennsylvania, just days ago and, oddly, just days before Independence Day, the state legislature passed a two-sentence bill gutting the private property rights of landowners who have leased their land for oil and gas exploration. It was a shameful thing to do, and it is an echo of the midnight legislative pay-raise that cost so many incumbents their seats a few years ago. It is the shady act of some self- anointed few to enrich their political friends, at the huge cost of Pennsylvania’s private landowners.

As I understand it, Governor Tom Corbett is weighing whether or not to sign it into law. I hope he does not sign it. To enact such a law flies in the face of everything that is American. It is against everything that Independence Day stands for. It is against everything that the men at Gettysburg fought and died for, and against everything that America’s Founding Fathers and brave patriots fought for in 1776.

I wish you a happy Independence Day today, and in its spirit I ask that you call your state legislators, and ask them if they voted for this un-American oil and gas bill. If they did, vote them out of office, and show them that the Spirit of 1776 still stands strong. You deserve better, I deserve better, America deserves better.

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