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Conserving conservation programs

February 26, 2011 at 10:54 PM

The State Journal-Register

Conservation programs are in the crosshairs this year as lawmakers slash budgets at all levels of government.

Illinois has been struggling with a deficit that might be as great as $15 billion, and the federal government is even worse off, with trillions of dollars in outstanding debt.

It’s not a matter of if programs will be cut, it’s how much.

Legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives zeroes out some programs altogether.

“I don’t think there is an answer,” said Julian Irby, a Springfield barber who recently returned from the National Wildlife Turkey Federation convention in Nashville, Tenn. “If you don’t have it, you don’t have it. I just think everybody will have to adjust.”

Possible casualties of the current budget crisis include the North American Waterfowl Conservation Act (NAWCA) and state wildlife grants (SWiG), both of which were used to protect wildlife and their habitat and to keep plants and animals off endangered species lists.

NAWCA was funded at about $48 million last year. The 2012 appropriation is zero.

Ditto for the $90 million of state wildlife grants that will go away in 2012 if legislation passed by the U.S. House a week ago becomes law.

Also under scrutiny are programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

USDA Farm Bill initiatives, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, are credited with bolstering numbers of grassland dependent birds and nesting waterfowl.

The government rents about 30 million acres of highly erodible or marginally productive farmland to cut down on erosion and preserve wildlife habitat.

The challenge for outdoorsmen and women is to make the case that conservation programs deserve to survive, even in tough budget times.

Jim King, senior regional director for Ducks Unlimited in central Illinois, said conservation dollars are matched by private donations, foundation grants and fundraising by local chapters.

“The best argument is those federal dollars are leveraged by private donations,” he said. “We leverage each dollar four to six times.

“Everybody’s tax dollars are used in the best possible way,” King said. “You don’t see that every day.”

Visualizing $1 million

Before getting on a tour bus, Eric Schenck stops and looks back at Wightman Lake.

Wightman Lake near Sparland is a 370-acre wetland and bottomland forest restoration project undertaken by Ducks Unlimited that started with the land acquisition in 2005.

Attendees at the state Ducks Unlimited convention in East Peoria last weekend were getting a chance to visit some of the organization’s projects along the Illinois River — including Wightman Lake.

When the cost of the property and its restoration are totaled, the final price tag is about $1 million.

“This is what $1 million looks like,” said Schenck, regional biologist for DU.

Illinois has lost 90 percent of its wetlands since settlers from Europe arrived, and restoring them is expensive.

Wightman Lake was funded from a variety of sources, including private foundations and a grant from NAWCA.

Despite the interruption caused by the tour bus’ arrival, Canada geese circled overhead and ducks called in the distance, occasionally taking flight to move from one wetland cell to another to be a bit further away from the visitors.

Finding alternatives

John Castro of Petersburg says getting kids involved in the outdoors will be critical to the future of any funding efforts.

That’s because they are the next generation of the license-buying and fee-paying public.

License funds are being asked to play a larger and larger role — they make up 40 percent of the DNR’s budget now.

“My real concern is that if we don’t make opportunities available for our kids, that heritage will be lost,” he said.

Like many hunters, Castro bemoans the loss of hunting opportunities as landowners earn extra income by leasing ground for private hunting. Kids might drop out because their parents can’t afford it or the available sites are too far away.

“It’s depriving children of an opportunity that once it’s gone, it’s gone,” he said. “It’s hard to put a dollars and cents figure on that.”

Castro said it might become necessary to raise license fees again.

“I may sound like a heretic, but I’m willing to pay for license increases,” he said. “I know not everybody is.”

State park entrance fees might also need to be considered.

“I hate to see us have to charge for it, but if we are at that point, the (DNR) director ought to think long and hard about that,” Castro said.

Additional reliance on volunteers might be a possibility.

“I don’t think there is anything wrong with a crew coming in to clean up the parks if they are not going to get any more employees anyway,” Castro said.

Irby said people who hunt, fish and watch birds realize what would be lost and should be willing to help.

“I think that they would pick it up. I guarantee it,” he said.

King said people who care about conservation are committed to finding solutions.

“For the waterfowling public, hunting or preservation of waterfowl means a lot to them,” he said. “It’s a cornerstone in their foundation. In their minds, it is a very high priority.”

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528.

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