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Despite the fact that hunters/anglers pay for New Jersey's Wildlife Management Areas, Governor Phil Murphy once again goes above his own "pay grade" to deny public access to public lands through July 27, 2020.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.  |  July 12, 2020
The big green 'keep out' signs at some wildlife management areas quote Section 7:25-2.26 of New Jersey Administrative Code (NJAC) which gives the Division of Fish and Wildlife authority to deny public access to “any specific land and water areas under its control, effective immediately upon making the finding that prevailing conditions warrant such restriction to protect the users, or to protect and preserve the land and water areas, or both, and continuing for so long as such conditions warrant.” The "prevailing conditions" in this case must be considered tenuous at best.

Smilin’ Phil Murphy has once again overstepped his legal authority!

The man who called the Bill of Rights “above my pay grade” back in April has reminded New Jerseyans yet again of how little he cares about the actual letter of the law via yet another lawfully questionable order from the office of the state’s top executive.

Last week, Governor Murphy waded into rather fishy waters by shutting down more than three dozen Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) in the Garden State including boat ramps, parking areas for wild beaches and shotgun ranges at state WMAs, citing staffing shortages involving state employees furloughed in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

What the governor fails to understand – or perhaps refuses to acknowledge - is that actual staffing and management of WMAs in New Jersey are virtually unaffected by the general budget; regular taxpayers don’t pay for these state wildlife management areas, because they’re already pre-paid by hunters and anglers.

As described in detail by the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife, these multiple-use public lands administered by the Division of Fish and Wildlife and managed by the Division's Bureau of Land Management for fish and wildlife habitat were purchased with funds from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, state waterfowl stamps and through the Green Acres Program.

Despite the furlough excuse, the Division of Fish & Wildlife's Facebook page reveals “Conservation Police Officers remain at work, actively patrolling Wildlife Management Areas.” The staffing situation – supposedly integral to keeping the WMAs open based on the governor's decision - reportedly involves roughly two dozen staffers who mostly manage trash collection and cleanup along more than 348,000 acres of public lands. Ironically, the state WMAs and facilities are "carry in - carry out" where trash/recycling receptacles are not provided by the state.

In some areas including the Flatbrook-Roy and Pequest WMAs, accessible fishing sites for people with disabilities were developed exclusively through partnerships with private groups including Trout Unlimited and Ramsey Outdoor Stores, making the governor’s decision even more tenuous.

On June 29, Governor Murphy struck a deal with the largest union of state workers to stave off mass layoffs, instituting furloughs and delaying a 2% wage increase which is expected to save the state over $100 million. Union leaders described the tradeoff as gaining “ironclad job security” in exchange for a loss of some pay. “Our members are safe while the economy improves. This agreement will save thousands of jobs,” union leadership said in a note to members.

Public sector jobs perhaps, but what about those in the private sector reliant on the hunters and anglers who already pay a dedicated tax to keep the WMAs open? According to the Division of Fish & Wildlife – an agency that does actually fall within the governor's pay grade responsibilities - operational funding for the Wildlife Management Areas is provided entirely by hunters and anglers.

Additionally, capital projects such as boat ramps, dams and parking lots are usually funded through combinations of Federal Aid (funds from excise taxes on sporting equipment paid for by hunters and anglers), Green Acres and General Fund Capital appropriations. Nearly half of the present system was purchased through Green Acres bond issues, approved previously by New Jersey voters at the polls.

Because of the “ironclad” deal brokered by Governor Murphy to preserve public sector jobs reeling from lack of income from a collapse in tax revenues, the hunters and anglers who actually pay for the Wildlife Management Areas in New Jersey will not be allowed to use their facilities until July 27. For some New Jersey anglers who’ve long recognized the shortfalls in the state’s fisheries budget while simultaneously fighting for much needed funding, the governor’s decision to shutter the WMAs is frustrating, but it's hardly a surprise.

“Anglers have been reluctant to ‘pay to play’ via a saltwater license in part because Trenton can’t be trusted with the monies,” said Greg O’Connell, beach access representative for the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) and a board member of the RFA-NJ chapter. “This is just another example of earmarked or dedicated funds being abused and misspent by our elected officials.”

As RFA executive director Jim Donofrio put it, “The governor’s latest action on our ramps just enforces our argument against paying for a saltwater license.”

Which of course begs the question, where exactly is the 'Goldman Sachs hedge fund tycoon turned governor' applying those hunter/angler tax revenues derived from license sales, if he’s not putting it to their legally intended use?

That question probably isn't really above the governor’s pay grade, particularly given those hedge funds upon which his personal fortunes were built are high risk investments using borrowed money; in effect, legalized gambling with other people’s cash.

Shoot, based on job experience it looks like begging, borrowing and stealing are smack dab in the middle of Smilin’ Phil’s wheelhouse!