OLYMPIA — Sportsmen jammed a state Senate hearing room Thursday and delivered this message to legislators over and over: Don't strip the Fish and Wildlife Commission of its authority.
"We do not like what you are attempting to do,'' said Larry Snyder, president of the Vancouver Wildlife League. "We worked real hard on that referendum (Referendum 45 in 1995) and we don't want to have to go through that again.''
Snyder was testifying before the state Senate Natural Resources and Marine Waters Committee on Senate Bill 5669.
The measure would merge the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, and Recreation Conservation Office into a new Department of Conservation and Recreation.
It also make the Fish and Wildlife Commission and Parks and Recreation Commission into advisory panels. Currently, the two commissions are appointed by the governor, set policy for their respective agencies, and hire and fire their own directors.
The governor would hire and fire the director of the proposed Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed the merger in late 2010. The bill was introduced at her request.
Referendum 45, a statewide ballot measure, established the current system of having a citizen fish and wildlife commission set policy and hire and fire the director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Referendum 45 passed with a 61 percentage vote overall and almost 66 percent approval in Clark County.
Ed Wickersham of Ridgefield, government relations chairman for the Coastal Conservation Association in Washington, told the committee even if the agencies are merged the fish and wildlife commission's authority must not change.
"We should move very cautiously when we start undoing a popular mandate and Referendum 45 was a very popular public mandate,'' he said.
Kirstan Arestad, a senior budget adviser for the governor, told the committee the merger would result in elimination of 11.5 jobs and save $2.2 million.
Wickersham said a major reorganization of government should result in a big savings or substantial efficiencies.
"We don't see savings here,'' he said.
M. Dennis Way of the Clark-Skamania Flyfishers provided the committee written testimony on Thursday. His testimony said club members are "outraged by the bill's intention to gut the WDFW Commission.''
Making the commission advisory destroys its ability to supervise the department, he said.
"This referendum was a clear message to the government that citizens wanted a change in the management of WDFW,'' he added.
Joe Taller, a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission, said Washington's parks system is well run and as good as any in the country.
Merging the parks and wildlife agencies is a mistake, said Taller, who is a former Boeing executive, state representative and director of the state Office of Financial Management.
Frank Urabeck of Bonney Lake, a long-time fisheries activist, urged rejection of the bill.
"We're concerned about special interests getting to the governor, the political connection, and then the director making the decision more on political grounds than the basis of science,'' Urabeck said.
Also against the bill for varying reasons were Trout Unlimited, Washington Cattlemen's Association, Kitsap Poggie Club, South Sound Flyfishers, Puget Sound Anglers and Washington State Snowmobilers Association.
State Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Anacortes, said the bill is a work in progress with major revisions likely. A workshop session of the Natural Resources and Marine Waters Committee will begin at 5:30 p.m. Monday in Hearing Room No. 2 of the Cherberg Building on the capitol campus.