DENVER A proposal to combine the state parks and wildlife divisions is nothing new. A similar idea was shot down seven years ago, and proponents are counting on a new governor and quick action by the Legislature to push through a merger this year.
The plan would combine one of the states most imperiled agencies the parks division with one of its most politically controversial the Division of Wildlife.
The two were combined 40 years ago, and the Legislature split them apart in 1972. But the state flubbed the breakup by assigning some lands that were purchased with federal wildlife money to the parks division.
The federal government keeps a strict watch over problems with diversion, or the use of wildlife money for any other purpose. A federal audit of Colorado turned up diversion problems 25 years after the break of the parks and wildlife agencies.
The Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreations staff studied a merger proposal and recommended against it in a 2004 report.
Vastly different missions, a lack of any efficiency savings, and the array of federal diversion issues negate any real operational benefits. A merger of the two divisions could repeat the problems of commingling funding sources that was experienced forty years ago, the report concluded.
But this year is different, said Mike King, director of the Department of Natural Resources. Kings department oversees both the wildlife and parks divisions, and he proposed the merger last month in order to save money and increase the efficiency of both agencies.
Were going to learn from our history, King said.
The problems the federal audit turned up in the 1990s were not ticky tack things, King said. They were bold violations, like using land bought with federal wildlife dollars for a state prison. And they stemmed from the breakup of the wildlife-parks agency, not its combination, he said.
The Division of Wildlife has always raised powerful emotions among both hunters and lawmakers.
Hunters and anglers feel protective of the DOW. With the exception of the Colorado Mule Deer Association a longtime DOW critic Colorados major sportsmens groups have come out against the merger.
The DOW is a large agency, with an $86 million budget and the equivalent of 631 employees, but it takes no state tax dollars because it relies on federal funds and fees from hunting licenses.
Non-residents pay $549.18 for an elk permit. Out-of-state big-game hunters account for more than half the DOWs revenue, according to its 2011 budget.
Thanks to hunters, the DOW does not depend on legislators for its budget. But several lawmakers cast a skeptical eye on the agency, including Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, who has oversight of the DOW from his post as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
Its not that I dislike the DOW. I just want the DOW accountable. They have been somewhat less than transparent. We dont know where some of that money is going, Sonnenberg said.
Sonnenberg is especially watchful over the DOWs land purchases, which sometimes take agricultural land out of production.
A merger would not send tax dollars to the DOW and bring it under tighter financial control by the Legislature. But the new agency will get a new director, appointed by a combined parks and wildlife board with approval from King. At least one of the current heads of the DOW and parks divisions will be out of a job.
The parks division goes into the merger as the weaker partner. Its about half the size of the DOW, in terms of its budget and workforce. And unlike the DOW, it does rely on tax dollars, but it will lose that funding this year because of the recession.
Before the merger, Hickenlooper proposed closing one state park and converting three more to state wildlife areas. But many more of the 42 state parks are at risk, legislators say, including many that allow hunting.
If we dont combine them and we close a third of the parks, thats a third less parks that hunters and anglers have access to, Sonnenberg said.
Sonnenberg is sponsoring the bill to merge the two agencies, Senate Bill 208, along with Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee.
King and the sponsors of SB 208 lined up a powerful coalition to virtually assure the bills passage. It has 24 co-sponsors in the Senate a chamber that requires only 18 votes to pass a bill and 32 House co-sponsors, one short of the magic number of 33.
And Gov. John Hickenlooper himself announced the bill. The merger would be the most visible achievement in Hickenloopers pledge to make state government smaller and more efficient.
It just happened lightning fast, said Rep. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, one of the few critics of the merger in the Legislature.
Jones pointed to the 2004 report by the parks division as the most rigorous piece of information available on whether a merger would work.
The two agencies have different cultures, Jones said.
A lot of people say thats outdoors stuff. Thats like saying Medicaid and food stamps are the same thing, he said. I think well be back in eight or 10 years undoing it.
Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, also is skeptical.
Ive got an open mind, but I have real questions as to whether its the best thing, Brown said.
Hunting groups and retired DOW directors like John Mumma of Durango have called on the Legislature to slow down and study whether a merger would work.
The proposed merger of these two state agencies should be placed on the back burner and eventually dropped from consideration, Mumma wrote in an April 2 op-ed in The Durango Herald.
King pledges to accept suggestions from the public and state employees on how to make a merger work, but he does not want a committee to study whether to do a merger in the first place.
You go into it knowing youre going to come out the other end with no efficiencies and no meaningful change. Inertias a powerful force, King said. Its a matter of style. The governor clearly supports a bold approach, and this is part of that.
Reach Joe Hanel at email@example.com