After 40 years of divorce, the Colorado Division of Wildlife and Colorado State Parks are set to become a single agency again, joined at the hip as a way to save money and create efficiencies in state government.
The two agencies, formerly hitched together in the 1960s and split in 1972, manage more than 300 state wildlife areas, 42 state parks and Colorado’s hunting and angling programs. They will become the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife on July 1, consolidating all their operations under a single umbrella.
Colorado isn’t the only Western state to consider shuffling around its parks and wildlife agencies this year in an effort to save money.
So far in 2011, Colorado’s parks and wildlife merger has been the first to succeed. A similar merger proposal in Washington state is taking steps toward passage, while another in Oregon remains in a state Senate committee. A measure in Montana’s statehouse proposing to divide its state parks and wildlife agency failed over the winter.
After Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire proposed that state’s merger plan last year, hunters and anglers criticized the plan because they couldn’t find the cost savings in the measure and feared it will strip the state’s wildlife commission of its authority by reducing it to an advisory panel.
Washington’s merger, already approved by the state Senate, was awaiting a final vote in the House on May 25.
In Colorado, where hunting draws scores of out-of-state sportsmen who pay as much as $500 more to bag an elk than a local would pay, the State Wildlife Commission and State Parks Board will be combined.
The new board will spend the next year figuring out how to merge the agencies because lawmakers left the details for the board members to hammer out by Colorado’s 2012 legislative session.
What that will mean for Colorado’s wildlife programs and state parks and how much money it will save is unclear. Newly-elected Gov. John Hickenlooper announced the proposal and the Legislature approved it in a landslide without setting specific cost-cutting goals or conducting a study of what efficiencies could be made.
In a fiscal review of the measure, the Colorado Legislative Council Service said it’s impossible to know how much money can be saved because it all depends on the actions the new board takes in combining the agencies.
Those unknowns worry sportsmen in Colorado, where one of the most prominent hunting and wildlife organizations in the state, the Colorado Wildlife Federation, has been one of the merger’s most vocal critics.
CWF Chairman John Smeltzer testified before a Colorado House committee in early May, insisting that the state set efficiencies goals before making the merger official or risk the decline of the state’s long hunting and angling legacy.
“In Montana today, we see an effort to separate their combined agencies into separate entities because the combined agency has been too powerful,” he testified before a Senate committee in March. “Think what would happen in Colorado.”
Lawmakers brushed off the criticism, saying the merger is a good idea in principle and efficiencies, whatever they are, will be found along the way.
Sportsmen also fear the solvent and mostly license fee-supported wildlife program will end up subsidizing a financially troubled state park system. If funds are found to have crossed from the wildlife program to state parks, the state could run afoul of federal law, which helps fund hunting and fishing programs in Colorado under the condition that the money be used only for those purposes.
But state natural resources officials insist that won’t happen. A single agency overseeing parks and wildlife will allow redundant employees to be reduced through attrition and provide parks users, hunters and anglers with a one-stop-shop for licenses and park passes.
“We have state parks and wildlife areas adjacent to one another,” the measure’s sponsors, Democratic State Sen. Gayle Schwartz and Republican State Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, wrote in the Denver Post in April, defending their bill. “Does it always require separate staff members to travel to and work on separate sites? Each agency has its own fleet of heavy equipment. Is that necessary in all cases? We can sure find ways to streamline work common to both — accounting, budget and purchasing for example.”
What sort of streamlining can be accomplished and what changes that might bring to state parks and wildlife areas will become clearer over the next year as the new parks and wildlife board creates a new agency.
“I am not here to say kill the bill,” former Colorado Divison of Wildlife Director Bruce McCloskey testified before a state Senate committee in March, urging the state to take a cautious approach to the merger, partially by allowing state parks and wildlife employees’ voices to be heard.
“They are the pros,” he said. “They will rally around this challenge and make it work.”
Bobby Magill can be found online at www.bobbymagill.com.