Do I need to point out that two of these three states are landlocked? 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 hint 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 law enforcement pros in the business. Your job: Patrol Florida’s backcountry alone by boat, car, airboat or on foot.
Unlike conventional police work, you are guaranteed, on a daily basis, to interact with strangers who are well armed — deer rifles, shotguns; boaters with bang sticks or spearguns. Responsible hunters and divers don’t guzzle beer, but not all people you encounter will be responsible. Nor will some react calmly when they’re sited 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.
To date, 17 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 shot-gunned to death by men he caught poaching — an Everglades scenario that has repeated itself too many times. Records don’t reveal the fate of Officer Field’s wife and three children, nor the fates of families orphaned by Florida’s other fallen wildlife 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 small town police departments pay, and about twelve grand lower than what rookies earn in a bunch of swampless, landlocked states that excel in corn, not tarpon, bonefish and coral reefs. No wonder a high percentage of our FWC officers, after a few years on the job, leave the department for better paying jobs with other law enforcement agencies.
Talk about a financial blunder! After investing about $70,000 in training a fine young prospect, we then pay him or her so poorly that, two or three years later, we must then invest another $70,000 to train his or her replacement.
I’m a writer by trade, not a businessman, but even I know that’s dumb!
Outdoor recreation in Florida is a money making machine. Our machine specialists need tending. I know too many smart legislators to believe they’re indifferent to this inequity, 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 salary adjustment for all is not only overdue, 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 a home with a future and, indeed, the Sunshine State.
Novelist Randy Wayne White is a former Sanibel fishing guide and author of 21 novels about marine biologist Doc Ford.