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Divvying Up the Department of Environmental Protection

A pair of bills in the Assembly would shift some DEP Divisions over to the Department of Agriculture.

If lawmakers have their way, the state Department of Environmental Protection would be a lot smaller.

Two bills up for consideration before the Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee tomorrow would do just that, shifting the Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife from the DEP to the Department of Agriculture and transferring New Jersey Forestry Services -- currently managed by the DEP's Division of Parks and Forestry -- to the agriculture department as well.

According to Assembly Bill A-2762, sponsored by Assemblyman John Amodeo (R-Atlantic), Fish, Game and Wildlife would be better served by Agriculture. The other bill (A-3376), sponsored by Assemblyman Ronald Dancer, a Republican legislator from South Jersey, does not specify a reason for the switch.

Conservationists oppose both bills, saying they don't understand what the moves are being made.

“Unless there is some compelling reason to do it, it’s best to leave it as it be,’’ said David Peifer, project director for the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions (ANJEC). “It’s ill considered to be messing with systems that have been working for years.’’

Pefier also suggested that the division overseeing hunting and fishing hardly corresponds with the objectives of the Department of Agriculture. “I don’t understand why Agriculture would want to tangle with this mess,’’ he said.

The transfer also drew criticism from Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “It’s a terrible idea,’’ he said. “The whole idea of moving it into agriculture is about turning our natural resources into commercial enterprises.’’

Tittel also worried that the transfer could threaten the state’s endangered species program, a part of the Division of Fish, Game, and Wildlife, which has come under criticism from both farmers and business interests.

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, said the agency is aware of the bill, but is still reviewing it.

The issue of the health of state forests has been a contentious one in the current legislative session. After much debate, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee approved a bill (S-1085) that would allow limited harvesting of trees on state-owned lands, a measure aimed at providing much needed fiscal resources to better manage state woodlands. The bill has passed the Senate and is awaiting action by the Assembly.

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