By LARRY WOODY
Stinging comments from a longtime Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency critic has drawn sharp response from the agency's defenders, and resulted in an updated - and more fair and accurate - story about a routine audit.
After running an Oct. 15 story lambasting the agency for alleged mismanagement, The Tennessean last week backtracked with a story that admitted the audit disclosed no "actual fraud or waste."
If there was no fraud or waste, why did state Sen. Frank Niceley claim that the TWRA "is out of control," and call for a major overall - and why did the paper spin that negative narrative in its initial story?
Among the audit's findings was that some TWRA equipment had been lost or misplaced, and there were 36 "improper" uses of agency credit cards - out of more than 57,000 uses since 2009.
State Sen. Mike Bell said such minor irregularities could be easily explained, noting the vast territory TWRA officers cover, and the erratic, around-the-clock hours they often work.
"These officers are somewhat unique in that a lot of time they're on their own," Bell said. "When they've got to have an item, there's no procurement process quick enough for them to get that item when they're in the field and they need it."
In other words, when responding to an outdoors emergency or criminal activity, officers don't always have time to file requisition papers.
TWRA Executive Director Ed Carter said the problems had been administrative in nature - not fraudulent - and steps had already been taken to correct them before the audit report.
Ignoring Niceley, a legislative panel has recommended a four-year extension of its mandate to manage the state's hunting, fishing and boating.
What generally goes unreported, and is apparently generally unknown, are the TWRA's extensive and expensive non-game programs. The agency manages and protects all non-game species, in addition to those sought by hunters and fishermen.
The TWRA is funded almost entirely by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, boat registration fees and related user revenues. It receives some federal funds for special projects, such as bald eagle research, and some private donations to its elk-restoration program.
The agency receives no state tax dollars, even though hunting and fishing, boating and other outdoor activities that are under its management comprise a billion-dollar state industry.
The Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission, a 13-member panel of mostly political appointments, oversees the agency. The commission answers to the Tennessee General Assembly, and in recent years the TWRA has been the target of political interference. Three years ago, a state representative tried to merge the agency with the Tennessee Department of Conservation, which would have been disastrous, and most recently Niceley wanted to dismantle it entirely.
The state's 750,000 hunters and fishermen are enjoying unprecedented outdoor opportunities. Hunting and fishing have never been better, boating has never been safer, and the woods and waters never better patrolled - all thanks to the TWRA.
Those are facts the critics can't dispute.