Last Thanksgiving, the Maryland Natural Resources Police got something for which they could truly be thankful: A helicopter.
After seven years with no eyes in the sky, the NRP got its 1972 Bell Jet Ranger back. The police aviation unit, founded nearly 70 years ago, had been eliminated by the previous administration in a cost-cutting move in 2009, and the helicopter was transferred to the Harford County Sheriff’s Office.
But restoring the NRP’s aerial mobility was a priority of Mark Belton, the current natural resources secretary. So he reacquired the copter and had it refurbished for $158,000, according to NRP spokeswoman Candy Thomson. Named Natural 1, it was pressed into service almost immediately, helping the NRP catch oyster and deer poachers and assisting with search-and-rescue missions.
Now, though, after just four months, the NRP, an arm of DNR, is in jeopardy of losing its helicopter again.
On Monday, a House Appropriations subcommittee recommended deleting nearly $556,000 in funding for the aviation unit and the helicopter. The subcommittee report said that because the department has a memorandum of understanding to request helicopter help from the Maryland State Police, the NRP aviation unit was “unnecessary.” Noting that the unit had been zeroed out before, the subcommittee concluded that the helicopter was “not a fiscally sound addition to the State’s budget.”
Belton, who came from a career in the military, disagrees. Having fought to restore the NRP’s aviation unit, he is working to make a case for saving it. The State Police helicopter, Belton told the Bay Journal, is available about half the time that the NRP would need it. Furthermore, the State Police helicopter costs taxpayer $5,881 an hour to run, while Natural 1 costs $340 hourly. That is a 17 to 1 ratio. And while the state police helicopter can help with search and rescue in emergencies, he said, that division has its own priorities and can’t necessarily spare its resources for, say, catching a deer poacher.
So, why get rid of it? Is it, perhaps, that watermen and hunters wish to have less enforcement? No, said Robert Newberry, a longtime waterman who represents the Delmarva Fisheries Association, a group of commercial fishermen.
“It’s great for law enforcement, safety, first responders, all of it. You got boats and manpower,” he said. “I feel better with it out there when I’m on my boat. It’s a great little chopper.”
Newberry recalled a June 2016 incident, when a Chesapeake Bay Foundation boat with 14 children aboard began taking on water and sank near Bloodsworth Island. A waterman in the area helped rescue them. Had the Natural Resources Police had the chopper then, Newberry said, perhaps they would have arrived more quickly.
Particularly in the face of manpower shortages, the helicopter helped keep eyes on the Bay. It became even more important as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has begun leaning on the Natural Resources Police for assistance securing the Port of Baltimore and other sensitive locations.
It’s only been back in operation a little more than three months, but in that time, NRP spokeswoman Thomson said that Natural 1 has logged a little more than 100 hours in the air on 70 missions, not counting maintenance and training flights.
Before the NRP lost the copter in 2009, it helped catch speeding boaters, take down the largest rockfish poaching ring in state history, rescue a stranded family, and find a large marijuana field in Wicomico County, according to a Baltimore Sun article at that time. A 2007 consultant’s report advised the General Assembly that the NRP needed its own unit because its mission was distinct from the state police’s, which uses its helicopter most often for Medivac flights.
No one brought up a specific incident when a helicopter could have meant the difference between life and death. But in the water, especially in the winter, a boater has only minutes. A chopper can arrive quickly. A boat takes longer. It is possible to use the resources of other counties, the state police, and the Coast Guard. But it is much easier when your department doesn’t have to ask, to compete with those other priorities.
All is not lost. The full Appropriations Committee is scheduled to meet Friday to finish its review of the state’s spending plan for fiscal 2018. The budget then goes to the House floor for debate and decision; once the Senate completes its work on the budget, any differences must be reconciled. Belton is hoping for a couple more chances to make the case for Natural 1.
“I feel like we made a really good case for it,” the DNR secretary said. “I’m disappointed in the subcommittee vote, but we’ll see.”