New DNR chief puts science over politics
By TIM HYLAND, The Capital (Annapolis) Staff Writer
As Ron Franks prepares to lead the Department of Natural Resources, he's trumpeting the same mantra his predecessor used when taking office two years ago: Science above politics.
But the Grasonville dentist and former state delegate is just adding one proviso: People count, too.
In the last several years, the DNR has made controversial decisions on blue crab management, hunting and introduction of an Asian oyster species, with groups such as hunters and watermen complaining their viewpoints were ignored.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who appointed Dr. Franks to the post this month, has said his administration will open debate to all stakeholders.
Dr. Franks, who lives in Queenstown, said DNR will follow that policy. His confirmation hearing before the Executive Nominations Committee is scheduled for Feb. 10.
"As far as what Gov. Ehrlich has said, and what I believe, everybody has a seat at the table to discuss the issues, and I believe every opinion is worth listening to," he said.
For environmentalists accustomed to former governor Parris N. Glendening's environment-friendly policy, the shift to allow watermen, hunters and industry groups a greater say could be a major adjustment.
Though they seem willing to give Dr. Franks time to prove himself, environmentalists are wary of changes to come under the Ehrlich administration.
They have criticized both Mr. Ehrlich and Dr. Franks for their environmental voting records.
"We just hope that he is actually going to be doing what he says ... and not keep the environmental community out-
side of the decision-making," said Sue Brown, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.
Theresa Pierno, Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said she hopes Dr. Franks makes good on his promises to determine policy solely on the facts.
"One of the things that can be detrimental to morale is somebody coming in and having a very strong bias, and not looking at science," she said.
At the top of Mr. Ehrlich's environmental priorities is reducing nitrogen pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, committing $112 million to the cause last week.
Dr. Franks, a longtime sportfisherman who owns Winchester Creek Outfitters, agrees that the state needs to improve bay water quality to make gains in blue crab and oyster restoration.
But he said the DNR must consider all options in bringing back blue crab and oyster stocks. That could include easing crab restrictions.
Watermen and seafood packers have complained harvest restrictions implemented under Mr. Glendening have been too harsh, putting the state's seafood industry at risk. Watermen also have said the size restrictions unfairly burden lower bay watermen.
Dr. Franks said he has not studied the blue crab situation long enough to "speak definitively," but will spend the next year looking at the problem in Maryland and Virginia.
"I will say that everything is on the table. Nothing is arbitrarily excluded," he said. "We will attempt to make reasonable adjustments while at the same time preserving the resources."
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, described Dr. Franks as a "straight shooter" who he expected to work well with, despite Dr. Franks' connection to sportfishing.
"All of us are hopeful that the whole Ehrlich team lives up to its promises, as far as having somebody in there we can work with," Mr. Simns said.
He was also pleased with Mr. Ehrlich's selection of Pete Jensen - a former state fisheries official forced to retire nearly three years ago - as deputy secretary of natural resources.
Mr. Jensen's support for watermen has often been cited as a reason for his departure.
Also forced out at that time was former wildlife official Mike Slattery of Severna Park, whose name has been mentioned recently as a possible candidate for a top DNR post. His removal raised the ire of hunters, who saw him as a trusted ally within the DNR.
Dr. Franks would not comment on personnel matters, but said Mr. Slattery is "well respected by a lot of people."
Dr. Franks, 60, led the Queen Anne's County Economic Development Commission and served four years as vice chairman of the Maryland Republican Party. He also has been a member of the Maryland Farm Bureau for 26 years.
He was a delegate from 1991 to 1994, serving on the Judiciary and Ways and Means committees.
The Maryland League of Conservation Voters gave Dr. Franks just a 20 out of a possible score of 100 for his environmental record in the House.
Dr. Franks said his votes as a delegate are not relevant to how he will run the DNR.
"There is a big difference in being a delegate and being at DNR," he said. "I think people can find some comfort in the fact that ... (we) will be listening."
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You can always tell who's in 2nd place by who's whining and crying the most. - Old hockey coach.
Dum spiramus tuebimur
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