By ELLEN STODOLA
ANNAPOLIS (March 3, 2012)—The number of Natural Resources Police Officers - about half as many as there were in 1990 - has some legislators and state officials concerned about safety and the protection of the state's vital resources.
With officers' expanding duties, continued oyster poaching and the threat of illegal rockfish nets, Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary's, and Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, believe the trend needs to be reversed.
"What we have seen is just a steady decline," Dyson said.
The lower number of officers is a result of budget cuts to the Department of Natural Resources.
"Our numbers are low," said Sgt. Art Windemuth, spokesman for the Natural Resources Police, which falls under the Department of Natural Resources.
Windemuth said the department has positions for 247 officers, but currently has about 206 officers.
SB 318, sponsored by Colburn and Dyson, would require the Natural Resources Police to increase its force to 435 officers by 2022, which averages to about 23 new officers per year.
Dyson said he saw a lot of support for the exact legislation last year, and has received support this year from watermen who see a need for more officers. The problem is not new, he said.
At a recent hearing for the bill, Dyson shared a report to the General Assembly from 1869 that requested expansion of the Natural Resources Police, which was then called the Oyster Police Force, and he said this still rings true today, especially since officers' duties have expanded over the years to deal with more than just oysters.
"Nothing replaces that individual who is on the ground or on the boat protecting these resources," Dyson said.
The Natural Resources Police has been a staple in Maryland since the 19th century, with its duties expanding over the years to deal with all aspects of marine populations, boaters and even some duties that are similar to the Maryland State Police.
"We have got to do something about Maryland's oldest police force," Dyson said.
Colburn echoed many of Dyson's concerns and pointed out the Natural Resources Police have miles and miles of territory to cover, but just don't have the resources.
He likened it to his trips home to Dorchester County. He said that when driving home, it's inevitable that he passes police patrolling the highways, but should he take a boat, it's unlikely that he'll see even one police officer.
Colburn said a major concern about adding more Natural Resources Police officers is that Maryland can't afford to hire them, but he disagrees.
"We cannot afford not to hire them," Colburn said.
Maryland Secretary of Budget and Management T. Eloise Foster said there are many other things to consider before approving the bill.
"Setting a goal for a certain number of positions in the Natural Resources Police will create expectations that the governor should fund this program and that it should be funded over other worthy state programs and services," Foster said.
Funding and jobs have already seen a serious reduction in the state, and a bill like this would tie the governor's hands and limit his flexibility, Foster said.
For the time being, the Department of Natural Resources is doing the best it can with the resources it has, said Maryland Secretary of Natural Resources John Griffin.
"Despite the recession and the number of reductions we've experienced at the Department of Natural Resources, we've tried to make Natural Resources Police a budget priority," Griffin said.
Griffin said the department has been particularly effective in redirecting resources to top priorities, like catching watermen for oyster violations, increasing fines and suspending licenses for violations.
"Despite their diminished force, our officers are doing their job very well, and we are trying to support them as best as we can in these tough economic times," Griffin said.