Conservation Congress concludes

October 25, 2009 at 06:36 PM

Marc Miller closed the first Conservation Congress in six years by leaving the door open.

“This is just the beginning of a very long conversation,” said Miller, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Miller bid farewell Sunday afternoon to 140 representatives of the agency’s constituent groups at the end a day and a half of discussion, debate and brainstorming about ways DNR can tackle challenges like reduced state funding, public access for recreation and youth recruitment.

Conservation Congress has been on hiatus for six years during the administration of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

On nearly everyone’s priority list is securing a predictable funding source for DNR. Miller has said often that the agency’s share of the state’s general tax revenue dropped by about half — from about $100 million to about $50 million — in the previous 10 years.

Aaron Kuehl, conservation director for Illinois Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever said the concept of more predictable funding – such as a dedicating sliver of the state sales tax - must be promoted.

“In conservation circles we know,” he said. “The legislators know, but the general public doesn’t.

“There are short-term fixes in the works (such as fee increases), but we need some longer term fixes, too,” Kuehl said.

“People really do need to speak out,” said Beth White, of the Trust for Public Land. “We have to show conservation is economically just as important as jobs, schools and roads. It’s part of the system.”

Limiting liability of landowners that allow outdoors recreation, including hunting, fishing, birding, hiking and other forms also resonated with participants.

A law was on the books up until 2005 that addressed the issue, but some didn’t feel it was adequate to protect landowners in all circumstances.

Addressing the issue of liability is key if private landowners are to be approached about allowing some forms of public recreation on their property.

Lenore Beyer-Clow, policy director of Openlands in Chicago, said negotiations are ongoing with the Illinois Trail Lawyers Association to come to agreement to bring a finished piece of legislation to the spring session that is agreed upon by all parties.

White said DNR has to partner with constituent groups and other state agencies to get things done.

“Government cannot do it all alone,” she said. “The state needs to figure out how to create all of these public and private partnerships.”

She said bringing agencies like agriculture, environmental protection, public health, transportation and others together with DNR is vital because all segments rely upon one another.

Miller said the newly reconstituted Conservation Congress surpassed all expectations.

“We are thrilled,” he said.

Before participants headed for home, he told them that reinstating the constituent body was one of the top items on his to-do list after taking over the directorship.

“We are listening, and we want you to know that,” he said. “There will be more Conservation Congresses in the future. This work is very important.”