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Conservation Congress meets

October 24, 2009 at 10:03 PM


As part of its efforts to re-open lines of communication with its varied constituent groups, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources on Saturday convened the first Conservation Congress in six years.

Conservation Congress was mothballed during the administration of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and DNR constituents often complained about being shut out of the decision-making process during those years.

About 140 people representing outdoor recreation, conservation, education and environmental groups spent the day at DNR headquarters listening to status updates from agency administrators and reviewing findings of a survey that asked for views on issues like natural resources funding, recreational access and getting more children outside.

During the afternoon session, participants broke into small groups to debate issues and establish priorities. The results of the small group sessions will be presented this morning at DNR.

The breakout sessions were briefly interrupted by a visit by Gov. Pat Quinn who praised the group’s work.

“If we work together – band together for causes we believe in, there is no more powerful force on earth,” he said. “We need everybody in this room. You don’t have to be a state government worker to make a difference.”

Thomas Lindblade of the Illinois Paddling Council said he was pleased that the small group sessions focused on specifics, including discussing the issue of public access for recreation.

Illinois does not have as much public land as a percentage of its area compared to other states.

Lindblade focused on a rule that says streams not considered “navigable” are not open for recreation like canoeing and kayaking.

Seeking a clearer, more up-to-date definition of navigable was one topic of discussion.

“What I look for is how we get from here to there,” he said.

Paul Kelley of Hudson represented the Illinois Trappers Association. He said Conservation Congress helps foster greater understanding among groups that seem to have little in common.

“Conservation Congress brings more people of diverse opinions and pursuits together to make recommendations,” he said. “When it’s over, they better understand what the other person wants and needs.”

Harry Hendrickson, executive director of the Illinois Science Teachers Association, said his group came up with some good ideas – especially as the session wound down.

“One of those was to create a youth jamboree,” he said. “We need a youth version of this Conservation Congress to get them involved – perhaps modeled after the state FFA convention.”

Funding issues have become the centerpiece of efforts to get DNR back on solid footing. The agency saw its budget slashed and lost many experienced hands to layoffs and early retirements in recent years.

The issue of a steady source of funding for DNR is frequently discussed. One potential solution is to dedicate a fraction of the state sales tax – a solution similar to that used by Missouri – to fund DNR. That idea hasn’t been able to get any traction outside of conservation circles.

Critical to DNR’s future also is the involvement of children – the agency’s next generation of constituents. Fewer people hunting and fishing will result in a corresponding decline in license and stamp revenue to fund conservation programs.

Quinn repeated his call that “no child left inside” initiatives during his remarks. He also reiterated his support for nature-based tourism including a well-maintained, properly staffed state parks system.

Quinn said afterwards that state government must pay good attention to the ideas that come out of constituent bodies like Conservation Congress.

“If you don’t listen to your customers, you aren’t going to have a good business – anywhere.”

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