DCNR secretary hopes to dispel ‘myths’

By Jeff
Mulhollem
Editor

Harrisburg — The average Pennsylvania hunter doesn’t trust
Michael DiBerardinis at all, and he knows it.

“The first problem is probably that I’m from Philadelphia,” the
secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
said with a chuckle. “Sportsmen don’t have to like me, but I want
them to know where I’m coming from on issues important to
them.”

Portrayed as an ambitious, power-hungry villain by the Unified
Sportsmen of Pennsyl-vania and others — who is supposedly conniving
to destroy the state’s deer herd for the benefit of timber
interests — DiBerardinis often is accused of being Gov. Ed
Rendell’s surrogate on a mission to merge the Game and Fish &
Boat commissions under the department he runs.

“But despite all that you might have heard, I’m against a
merger,“ he said. “And so is the governor. A merger is not on our
agenda.

“We don’t think we need a merger,” DiBerardinis added. “If we
felt we couldn’t reach our goal of real collaboration and
cooperation on managing our state’s natural resources without a
merger, then we might look at it differently, but we believe we can
attain our goals with the two commissions and a separate DCNR.”

DiBerardinis, who has been called the “Great Satan” of an
increasingly bitter deer debate by some, can’t understand why folks
won’t believe him on this subject. “There is no interest on my part
and on the governor’s part for a merger,” he said. “If you look
back at his campaign, he ran on keeping the commissions separate,
and there has been no shift on our part. I have not equivocated on
this and neither has the governor.“

Ironically, according to the DCNR secretary, who was named along
with the Game Commission in the lawsuit filed by the Unified
Sportsmen to slow deer herd-reduction, Gov. Rendell has paid a
political price on the merger issue — even though few in the
sporting community appreciate it.

“We got our butts kicked when we told legislators that we were
against a merger,” he said. “There were elements in the Legislature
that were disturbed that we publicly indicated that merger was not
part of our agenda. I don’t know all the reasons behind people
being upset, but certain people weren’t at all pleased that we took
merger off the table.”

Another reason hunters don’t trust DiBerardinis is that many see
him as advocating an unreasonable reduction in deer numbers to
better grow trees and make more money from timber in state
forests.

“The one thing that makes my blood boil is when people say I’m
the pawn of the timber industry,” he said. “It is just not true.
They don’t even like me — you can ask them. And we are only cutting
1 percent of our state forests, so that whole aspect is
overblown.”

There has been a lot of talk in hunter circles recently about
DCNR having a secret goal of five deer per square mile — generally
agreed to be an unhuntable level — to allow regeneration of
desirable tree species in forests. DiBerardinis claims it’s just
not so.

“There is no five-deer-per square-mile DCNR goal,” he said. “I
don’t know what that number is, but I know it is not five! If
somebody says we have a number of five, that is wrong and somebody
made that up.

“We have to work with the biologists, hunters, farmers and
foresters to get a number we can agree on and have faith in,”
DiBerardinis continued. “We have to have trust and consensus around
the number — but always recognizing that the Game Commission makes
the final call. The commission will make those decisions in concert
with all its stakeholders.”

Lately, DiBerardinis has engendered sporstmen suspicion by
interviewing candidates for appointment to the commissions. Some
view his involvement as foreshadowing a merger.

“Nah, the governor simply asked me to — he trusts me,”
DiBerardinis said. “We worked together eight years on Philadelphia
recreational properties and issues. I was very connected to him and
his policy initiatives, and I was involved in some important policy
iniatives here in Harrisburg, such as Growing Greener II.”

After commissioner candidates are screened and interviewed by
the 25-member Governor’s Advisory Council on Hunting, Fishing and
Conservation, at least two names are sent to the governor’s office
for each appointment. That’s when DiBerardinis gets involved.

“We interview the finalists and make recommendations, but the
governor makes the final choice,” he said. “There is nothing that
happens in the interviews that pulls any names off the table. And
not once have I, the governor or anyone else inserted someone into
the process who was not one of the finalists picked as most
qualified by governor’s advisory council.

“We have tried to take the politics out of the process to get
more qualified commissioners,” DiBerardinis said. “If people see
that as a prelude to a merger, then they are seeing something that
doesn’t exist, and I can’t do anything about that.”

Resolving Pennsylvania’s so-called deer war, according to
DeBerardinis, is critical to the state’s future. “We have to use
the best science available to find new ground for this discussion,”
he said. “We must use whatever methodologies are available — such
as aerial infrared photography — to get a good idea of how many
deer are really out there. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think
anybody really knows right now.

“We must dispel the skepticism in the sporting community,”
DiBerardinis explained. “This is not just about deer — this is
about good public policy. Not only do you have to do the science
and have the data, but then you have to share the information, the
rationale and the thought process behind the policy with the
leadership of the constituency, such as sportsmen.“

If sportsmen look objectively at what DCNR has done in the past
couple of years, they should be reassured, DiBerardinis believes.
Besides taking merger off the table, DCNR has been working to find
where his department’s interests and the Game Commission’s
interests are the same.

“The commissions and sportsmen who support them wanted the
agencies to be involved in Growing Greener II, so we put them in
with $80 million in grants that didn’t have to be paid back,” he
said. “The Game Commission asked us to do aerial infrared deer
surveys — we did it, and DCNR paid for the overflights.

“The Game Commission asked us to get involved in cooperative
food plots, and we are doing it … I’m not sure what else we can do
to build trust and concensus.”

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