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A Map, a Hornets’ Nest : New DFG Head Wants Time to Find His Way Around California, but the Commission’s Many Problems Will Find Him Quickly

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Boyd Gibbons has worked for National Geographic magazine for the last 15 years, hasn’t lived in California for 41 years and had never heard of the Little Hoover Commission or its critical report on the California Department of Fish and Game, which he now commands.

So is he the man to save California’s living natural resources?

“I’ll be honest with you,” Gibbons said after Gov. Pete Wilson appointed him to replace Pete Bontadelli as director of the DFG last week, “I’m in great ignorance here.”

Bontadelli, who was appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian in 1988, will become, at his own request, one of two chief deputies to Gibbons and administrator of the DFG’s Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response, an operation he helped create.

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All Gibbons knows for sure is that he will be paid $95,052 a year to pull the DFG’s complex act together. How he plans to do it, considering his lack of local knowledge, is something the state’s hunters, fishermen, conservationists and environmentalists are eager to learn.

Gibbons, 54, was born in Los Angeles and lived in suburban San Marino until he was 13, when the family moved to Montana. His father and grandfather ran a Ford dealership downtown.

“My grandfather took me hunting in Southern California,” Gibbons said. “I was his bird dog. We also hunted quail and ducks in Mexico, in Sonora.

“He had a Parker .410, double barrel (shotgun). That was my gun.”

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So, Boyd Gibbons is a hunter.

“And (fisherman) always. My grandfather fished all over the place, but he loved Lake Henshaw back when it was a premier bass lake.

“When I moved to Montana, I had to teach myself how to cast a fly without popping it off behind me.”

So, Boyd Gibbons is a hunter and a fisherman.

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Speaking of his days in Montana, Gibbons said: “I had the great outdoors all around me, and I just loved it. I never got that out of my blood. Never will.”

Before he went to work for the Geographic, Gibbons studied law at the University of Arizona, served three years in the Air Force as a judge advocate on Okinawa and practiced law in Phoenix. Then he went to Washington in the late 1960s as deputy undersecretary of the interior; was secretary of the first Council on Environmental Quality under President Nixon, dealing with land-use policy and wetlands protection; and later was senior research associate with Resources for the Future.

At National Geographic, he wrote articles about Aldo Leopold, the father of game management, and the Oregon Trail, along with a book, “Wye Island,” about conflicting attitudes on developmental change.

So, Boyd Gibbons is a hunter, a fisherman, a conservationist, an environmentalist and, at least from a national perspective, sensitive to the critical issues relating to those interests.

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“Some of our directors had never heard of Aldo Leopold,” said Phil Pister, a retired DFG fisheries biologist who remains one of the department’s most articulate critics.

Gibbons’ education on California will start after Jan. 1, when he moves into a bachelor apartment in Sacramento, until his wife, Gay, sells their house in Bethesda, Md.

“The obvious (concerns) seem to be wetlands and everything to do with the flow of rivers and the relationship to anadromous fish--the salmon--and, of course, that means the (San Joaquin) Delta, with the pumping of the project, and the drought and endangered species.

“There probably are other big (issues), and I’ll have to learn about them. My instinct as a journalist, as a lawyer, was to get out on the ground to go look for myself. Until I do that and really see the state again and get my nose into the road cuts and into the marshes, I don’t feel I can talk with much intelligence about what the big issues are.”

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The administrative duties of the job are demanding, however, and escaping the office might be difficult.

“There are a certain amount of things you’ve got to do in town--deal with people, meetings--but you can become a prisoner,” Gibbons said. “If you see me in meetings all the time, you’ll know Gibbons failed.”

Gibbons also must deal with the department’s low morale, especially in the outlying regions, where the employees feel cut off, believing their concerns are ignored or lost in the Sacramento bureaucracy. That issue was addressed in the 1989 report of the Little Hoover Commission.

On the day his appointment became official, a reporter asked Gibbons, “Are you aware of the Little Hoover Commission’s report on the DFG?”

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“No,” he replied.

“Do you know what the Little Hoover Commission is?”

“No. First time I’ve heard about it.”

The Little Hoover Commission is a state government watchdog agency composed of private citizens appointed by the governor and state legislators. Its report strongly urged that the part-time Fish and Game Commission--the policy setter, also appointed by the governor--be expanded for better representation from biologists, developers, environmentalists and the like, instead of just five hunters and fishermen.

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It’s still only five--and was down to three for a short time this year after one member died and another’s term expired.

The report didn’t outright recommend firing anybody from the DFG, including Bontadelli, but noted the DFG’s “antiquated structure.”

The DFG since has attempted to streamline its management and accounting.

“It’s good to know there’s been some analysis like that on the department,” Gibbons said.

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Gibbons said he plans no immediate housecleaning.

“I won’t know until I meet these people and reach some judgments about them and get a feel for it,” he said.

Gibbons and Doug Wheeler, an early Wilson appointee who heads the Resources Agency over the DFG, were acquaintances at Interior, although calling them cronies might be going too far. Gibbons said he applied for the California job last spring.

“I knew him first in 1969,” Wheeler said. “His was a candidacy almost from Day 1, although in addition to the names that were recommended to us, we sought people out, as well.”

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Bontadelli’s future had been speculated upon in the 13 months after Wilson’s election, and Wheeler said: “We had an understanding with Pete from the first day that he was not likely to stay there. Our belief was--and I think he would share this--that it was probably time for some new leadership and new direction.”

On the contrary, Bontadelli had said he would like to stay, while dropping hints that he might not be asked to.

Bob Fletcher, president of the Sportfishing Assn. of California and a former DFG deputy director, said, “I’m very disappointed that the governor decided to put aside all the fine efforts and background of Pete Bontadelli. The only people I think who would have been qualified would have been someone with background and knowledge on the unique problems of the state.

“Even if (Gibbons) was the brightest person to walk the face of the earth, the sheer magnitude of the issues he’ll be facing will take him well longer than a year just to get a grasp. This guy is really walking into a hornet’s nest.”

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Jim Hamilton of CalTrout said: “A lot of people who have lived here for 41 years don’t know much about the problems. Anyone who puts in the effort can find out what he needs to know.

“But we need someone who can kick (rears) in the Resources Agency to get protection for fish that hasn’t been there in a long time . . . a strong person who can whip the department into financial shape and can represent the department in the Legislature to get the department money it needs to do the job . . . someone who is politically savvy and is tough.”

Bontadelli, a former legislative aide, generally was regarded as politically savvy. Pister, who worked under all the directors from the first in 1952, said Bontadelli was “the most intellectually astute director we ever had.”

Said Wheeler: “No one faults the job that he had done. (It’s) simply the need for a fresh face. He’s been battered by lots of the controversies that afflict that job.”

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With Gibbons, Wheeler is seeking “a smooth transition from an agency which has been known principally for its resource management responsibilities to one which also serves as the ecological survey for the entire state government.

“It’s a role that is not readily understood or readily funded, and all of this occurs at a time when California’s natural resources are under intense pressure.”

Gibbons’ mandate, Wheeler said, is “a strong focus on . . . the establishment of priorities, which has been lacking, and (creating) an adequate source of dependable funding. That’s something we’ve challenged Boyd to do almost right off.”

Gibbons said: “It’ll get contentious, but it’s fun to be back in California. It’s fun to be back into government. As much as I love writing, I missed politics and government.

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“I consider it to be what Aristotle said: the highest calling, the improvement of society. And fish and game are the visceral issues that I’ve always cared about.”


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