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Print

Opinion: Long story short: Illinois’ natural resources vital

November 17, 2013 at 04:03 AM

The State Journal-Register


If you don’t tell your story, someone else will.

Truer words were never spoken, especially when it comes to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The story that lawmakers and a former governor were permitted to tell during the last decade was that the agency was ripe for gutting, that it had too much staffing, that it was perfectly fine to plunder DNR’s special funds to prop up other endeavors and that its importance to the state lay mainly in regulating hunting and fishing.

Talk about some tall tales for the campfire.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has been around since 1925, when it was established as the Illinois Department of Conservation — a successor to the division of fish and game in the state Department of Agriculture. It was evident even then that state leaders valued wildlife regulation, forestry and stream pollution monitoring.

After it was established, the conservation department acquired more duties, as Illinois’ landscape and conservation needs evolved. For example, in 1951 DNR assumed control of Illinois’ state parks. Ten years later it began regulating land reclamation related to open-cut mining in the state.

In 1995, the conservation department became the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Its duties now are almost innumerable and reach well beyond simply fishing and hunting. Among them:

It manages 324 state-owned and leased state parks, fish and wildlife areas, forests, trails, natural areas and recreational sites throughout the state.

It regulates mines, mine safety, dams and floodplain management in Illinois.

It oversees the Lake Michigan water allocation program for 200 communities in the Chicago area and administers the water supply at four reservoirs downstate.

It runs the Illinois State Museum in Springfield.

It manages programs, and licensing in some cases, for fishing, hunting, wildlife watching, trapping, commercial forestry and fisheries, endangered species and more.

It maintains the Illinois Conservation Police force.

It reaches out to children and adults in urban areas, where education about conservation and wildlife isn’t as readily available.

Earlier this year, DNR became responsible for the monumental task regulating hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in southern Illinois.

In spite of all that and more, state leaders gutted 54 percent of the agency’s workforce during the last decade, eliminating 1,400 employees.

And they cut 55 percent of the agency’s budget, slashing it from $108 million in 2002 to about $47 million today. Fund sweeps by the state are nothing new to DNR, and there’s little they can do to prevent them from occurring in the future.

Illinois’ natural resources have always been a source of pride for the state. Hunters flock to the fields, woods and marshes every year. Fishermen take advantage of numerous lakes and streams. Bird watchers, hikers, horseback riders, snowmobilers, boaters, bicyclists, campers and others enjoy the state’s public parks, waterways and trails.

According to DNR figures, the agency has a $32 billion economic impact on the Illinois economy and contributes to 90,000 jobs in the state.

Hunters and fishers alone – an estimated 1.3 million of them in Illinois – have a $3.2 billion economic impact, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And about 3 million “wildlife watchers” in Illinois spent an estimated $1.3 billion in 2011, according to the federal agency.

When we’re talking about these kinds of numbers in a state with revenue, business-retention and unemployment problems, why would lawmakers not fall all over themselves to support the agency that administers and promotes those types of activities?

Furthermore, DNR competes against other states that have equally stunning natural resources where people can just as easily spend their time and money. When those people know they’re going to find in Illinois inadequate electrical hookups at camping sites, unkempt trails, broken toilets and no site interpreters to help them appreciate their surroundings, they of course will consider spending their time and money in Michigan or Missouri instead.

There seems to be an awakening among state leaders about DNR’s affect on the Illinois economy, as evidenced by a sustainability bill that was approved to help with funding the agency. DNR has added staff, and it is working to buy much-needed lawnmowers and address $750 million in deferred maintenance.

Let’s put a stop to the fund sweeps and cuts that nearly crippled the agency during the last decade. Illinois’ natural resources deserve better than they’ve received.

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