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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Kim Thorburn: Following existing laws would fix Fish and Wildlife Commission

Kim Thorburn

By Kim Thorburn

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission is in the spotlight as allegedly “dysfunctional,” fraught with “interpersonal” conflict. Some legislators are proposing to fix it.

During hearings on “fix-it” bills, lawmakers seemed to call out the appointment process as what needs to be fixed. I agree that the problem lies in the appointment process, not in the commission itself. But if the parties responsible for appointment process, the governor and Senate, followed existing laws, I posit there is already the ability to effectively comprise a commission that does what it is supposed to do: protect, perpetuate, and preserve the state’s fish, shellfish, and wildlife; conserve and authorize take so as not to imperil the resources; maximize hunting and fishing opportunities; and include volunteers in these efforts. (RCW 77.04.012)

There are two statutes that govern commission appointments, RCW 77.04.030 and RCW 77.04.055, neither of which is being followed. The former law is about the process of commission appointments, including geographic distribution of commissioner appointees, terms, appointment dates, and time limits on filling vacancies. The governor who is the appointing authority has not complied with appointment staggering requirements and vacancies have been left unfilled well past the statutory mandate.

The other law is about commissioner qualifications. It reads in part, “In making these appointments, the governor shall seek to maintain a balance reflecting all aspects of fish and wildlife, including representation recommended by organized groups representing sport fishers, commercial fishers, hunters, private landowners, and environmentalists.” We are now hearing loudly from the state’s hunting groups that the governor did not consult them during the latest round of commission appointments. There is considerable well-founded speculation that the only groups consulted were organized anti-hunting animal rights groups and individuals and they represent extremist environmentalist fringe whose beliefs have little or nothing to do with fish and wildlife conservation and management.

The commission’s mandate to conserve and manage the state’s fish and wildlife in trust for the citizens is inclusive, not partisan. The animal rights creed that advocates no hunting or no hunting of certain species or banning some traditional methods of hunting and fishing is exclusive, partisan, and incompatible with the commission’s statutory duties. Animal rights groups have become increasingly visible and are, in part, the reason that the Fish and Wildlife Commission is in the spotlight. They bring conflict to mandate responsibilities and are using the political process to disrupt the commission’s duty to the mission.

Apparently, animal rights groups have an ally in the governor. Even with a legally defined process, appointing authority can be exploited to advance partisan motives, including back-door attempts to change law without going through the arduous process called for by our representative form of government. That’s why there are checks and balances such as advice and consent to appointments. Advice and consent through the Senate’s confirmation process should provide assurance that appointments involved the legally required inclusive consultation and more important, vet appointees for their commitment to uphold the statutory mandate rather than serve as a Trojan horse to change the mission.

The work of the Fish and Wildlife Commission touches the diverse cultures of our state. The statutory mission provides the guideposts for navigating the diverse cultures. The commission conflict that is purportedly so prevalent arises from a group, animal rights believers and government official supporting them, who seek to exclude many cultures involving fish and wildlife - hunters, commercial fishers, certain sports anglers, rural landowners, mainstream environmentalists - by changing the mission.

A dramatic shift in social and cultural norms does not belong in the hands of an appointed body like the Fish and Wildlife Commission. It is the work of the Legislature through regular transparent and inclusive representative law-making and not political payback or endgame back-room budget dealing. I suggest that we don’t need new laws to improve the functioning of the Fish and Wildlife Commission but instead, we need elected officials to follow current law.

Kim Thorburn, of Spokane, is a member of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission.

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