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Thursday, Oct 02, 2014
Commentary

Defenders of Florida’s wild wonders deserve a raise

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I had hoped it would be a snowy day on Duval Street before the Legislature required my advice on business, but someone needs to speak out about a glaring wrong before the big chill descends. Consider: Florida makes more money from fishing, hunting and boating than any state in the nation, yet we pay our biologists and law enforcement pros like a bankrupt, landlocked and butt-ugly tourist pariah. Florida ranks 40th or worse in most salaried categories. That’s bad business.

Our Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) professionals haven’t had an equitable raise ever.

That’s an invitation to mediocrity. If employees aren’t paid what they’re worth, motivation is the first casualty, and personal work product will descend to the level of income — and the smartest will leave.

Rick Scott, this is not Kentucky. Ladies and gentlemen of the Legislature, this is Florida, land of recreational plenty. We own more International Game Fish Association world records than most countries, and are home to more birds, fish, game and road-less wilderness than any state south of Canada. It’s time to fortify the platinum goose you’ve inherited by investing in the employees who are mandated to protect it.

The disparity between income and re-investment is mind-boggling. No, it’s an embarrassment. Recreational fishing alone brings $5 billion annually into our state, according to a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife national survey. New York, Maryland and California tie for a distant second and third, earning about half that. Add boating, hunting and scuba revenue, and we blow all other states away in comparison.

Yet, Maryland and California pay their biologists and state law enforcement officers about double what we pay ours. Worse, 90 percent of U.S. states competing for our recreational dollars are luring, and keeping, the best talent in these fields for a simple reason: Most of them pay competitive wages.

Florida does not.

How oblivious is Tallahassee to the situation? Deaf, dumb and indifferent judging from data compiled from the same national survey, trade magazines and Internet sources. Salaries for fish-and-game law enforcement officers are an example. The seven top-paying states are Maryland, California, Nevada, Washington, Wyoming, Indiana and Idaho.

Now let’s skip to the bottom six: Oklahoma, New Mexico, Florida, South Dakota, Georgia and Utah.

A simple comparison: In Maryland, the median salary for an experienced fish-and-game officer is $67,400. Florida? $39,400. If you are not yet embarrassed, I have three names for you: Mississippi, West Virginia, Arkansas. That’s right; this nation’s poorest states exhibit a business savvy our own Legislature lacks. Even they take better care of their wildlife professionals.

According to a study published in the April edition of Fisheries Magazine, Florida ranks 46th in the U.S. in what we pay our second-level biologists ($36,500.) We’re talking about scientists with Ph.D.s who have already proven themselves in the workplace and in their fields!

OK, now imagine you have recently graduated from a top university, valedictorian of your class as a biology major. It’s time to find an entry (level one) position, so you study the marketplace for starting salaries. Will you apply to Florida’s FWC ($32,600,) or purchase mittens and go to work for Virginia ($53,500) or Wisconsin ($50,745) or Wyoming ($50,300)?

Do I need to point out that two of these three are landlocked states? Yet they place more value on a fisheries biologist than Florida, the birthplace of big-game fishing, but the stumbling heir to a $5 billion annual legacy.

I’m not saying our FWC doesn’t have some superb biologists — we do. Florida’s charms and good luck are to thank for that. But how can we keep the best and brightest, or attract fresh talent, if we continue the pound-foolish stratagems of a miserly, third-rate tourist attraction?

We won’t. Not in this economy. In the words of Buffett (Warren, and maybe Jimmy, too): “Hire the best people, pay them well, and success will take care of itself.”

More troubling is the financial indifference shown our FWC law enforcement officers (about whom, during my 40 years in Florida, I have yet to hear a whiff of scandal.) Let’s imagine another scenario: You are a top prospect from a police academy, the military, or a university program. After a lengthy hiring process (including a microscopic background check and polygraph tests) you are then trained by some of the best in the business. Your job: Patrol Florida’s back country alone by boat, car, airboat or on foot.

Fun, huh?

Unlike conventional police work, you are guaranteed, on a daily basis, to interact with strangers who are well-armed — deer rifles, shotguns, and boaters with bang sticks or spear guns. Responsible hunters and divers don’t guzzle beer, but not all people you encounter will be responsible. Nor will some react calmly when they are cited for a game law violation.

The good news? You’re carrying a radio and a gun. Bad news? You are alone, in a remote area, and the lawbreakers have their guns loaded and ready when you appear.

Seventeen officers sworn to protect Florida’s outdoor resources have died in the line of duty. The first was on Christmas Eve 1950, when Officer James R. Fields was shotgunned to death by men he caught poaching — a common Everglades scenario. Records don’t reveal the fate of Officer Field’s wife and three children, or the fate of families orphaned by Florida’s other fallen officers. In the most recent incident (2009), FWC Officer Vann Streety stopped a suspect in a wooded area of Brevard County. He was shot six times, but survived.

Your starting salary for all this excitement? $32,836. That’s less than many police departments pay, and about 12 grand lower than what rookies earn in a bunch of swamp-less, landlocked states that specialize in corn, not tarpon, bonefish and coral reefs.

Outdoor recreation in Florida is a money-making machine, and our machine needs tending. I know too many smart legislators to believe they are indifferent, so it’s my hope they are simply unaware. A retroactive pay raise is in order for our best FWC people. An across-the-board increase for all is not only an imperative — it is just smart business.

Tallahassee must send a signal to our nation’s best and brightest that Florida, as the land of recreational plenty, is business savvy and, indeed, the Sunshine State.

Randy Wayne White, a former fishing guide and columnist for Outside magazine, is the author of the bestselling series of adventure novels featuring marine biologist Doc Ford. He lives near Fort Myers.

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