Opinion: DNR fisheries department in a “world of hurt”

February 26, 2012 at 08:53 PM

Mike Conlin, who retired as head of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources office of resource conservation in 2009, gave this speech to the Illinois American Fisheries Society Meeting at Starved Rock State Park Lodge on Feb. 22.

First of all let me state that prediction is difficult, especially of the future. 

I’ve been around the Illinois fisheries scene for nearly five decades. 

Yet,  as I stand here today there are only two things that I know for sure……the first is that hip boots leak only in cold water…..the second is that the Division of Fisheries is in a world of hurt.   

On the surface, the Illinois DNR’s Division of Fisheries appears to be dead in the water. 

Consider that…….nearly half the counties of the state have no coverage by a District Fishery Biologist…….they are at half staff on the Lake Michigan Program…….the Division is one retirement away from having no one assigned to the Mississippi River Program …….the Urban Fishing Program will shrink to nothing (1 person) after a key upcoming retirement…….there is no longer any Reservoir Fishery Management Program (Shelbyville, Carlyle, Rend)……there are only 11 staff presently instead of 24 to produce fish at Jake Wolf Fish Hatchery (and half-staff or less at Little Grassy and LaSalle Hatcheries as well)…….over $18 million is needed for basic maintenance and upgrading within the now 30 year old hatchery system of Jake Wolf, Little Grassy, and LaSalle hatcheries………the Division of Fisheries has but one person under the age of 40. 

What about the rest of the DNR?  Pretty much the same story, really. 

Heading into the late 1990’s the DNR staff numbered around 2200.  Today, that number has dramatically fallen to 1100-plus, with the retirement of many more baby boomers close at hand. 

At the same time that the number of DNR worker bees has fallen 50 percent, the number of DNR top Executive Staff has increased substantially. 

When the work force numbered 2200, there was a Director and two Deputy Directors…..today, with only 1100 employees, there is a Director, Assistant Director, THREE Deputy Directors, a Chief of Staff, an Assistant to the Director, and a plethora of Office Directors. 

Dr. Willard Klimstra (1979) once observed that patronage :
• Tends to foster non-professionalism
• Permits inefficient use of scarce dollars
• Hampers the role of leadership
• Inhibits freedom to address issues honestly and openly
• Tends to negate long-range planning based upon biological principles
• Creates an atmosphere of insecurity, and
• Promotes “politicking” in the interest of personal survival

I would just add that, in my view, it is criminal that a fat executive staff is thriving and causing, in part, the occurrence of a dangerously lean field staff .

Everyone realizes that the amount of General Revenue Funds available for state government has shrunk dramatically in recent years.  But why are the core functions and responsibilities of the DNR (conservation and management of our wildlife and aquatic resources and enforcement of laws protecting such) also so anemic, funding wise? 

After all, isn’t the Wildlife and Fish Fund (where all hunting and fishing license income is deposited) a special fund which can only be utilized for funding the core functions of the DNR? 

Guess again.  In 2005, the 25 year annual payment of $1.4 million/year to pay for the expansion of the fish hatchery system was completed.  Although an additional $1.4 million of the fees anglers pay annually for fishing licenses was now available for other Division of Fisheries needs, Fisheries did not receive one penny of this money. 

Resident fishing license fees were increased in 2010 ($12.50 to $14.50) but none of the monies generated from the increase went to the Division of Fisheries. 

It’s simply a matter of diversion. 

As general revenue monies began to dry up the past decade, monies from the Wildlife and Fish Fund were directed toward programs it had not historically been utilized for. 

Seven years ago there was a $45 million balance in the Wildlife and Fish Fund. 

Today, there is virtually a zero balance, with negative balances just on the horizon.  Why does the Director of the DNR allow that? 

Well, the sad fact is that the Director is really not the Director at all.  To truly manage, one must have control of the budget and personnel.  The Director of DNR in actuality controls neither one. 

The Budget and Personnel Directors within DNR answer not to the DNR Director, but rather to the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Central Management Services, respectively. 

What this all adds up to is that those really in charge of the DNR haven’t a clue regarding what conservation of our aquatic, wildlife, natural heritage, and forest resources consists of or why it is of such critical importance.

The current ineptitude exhibited within the Executive Branch surely has no equal within State Government.  Right?  Wrong.  One only has to look to the Legislative Branch.  It seems that the defining characteristic of legislators these days is that “they do not know how to play well with others.” 

They are so busy fighting amongst themselves and concentrating on getting re-elected that they are incapable of addressing the egregious problems which exist in the Executive Branch of our government.

So, back to the initial question.  Is there any hope?  Aldo Leopold once said “That the situation appears hopeless should not prevent us from doing our best.” 

I think that in this one statement lies the foundation of our hope for the NEAR-TERM future of the Division of Fisheries. 

The current Division, as tattered and torn as it is, is comprised of men and women whose deep sense of professionalism give them the will to carry on in the face of extreme adversity. 

My college mentor (Dr. Leonard (Bull) Durham) and my first DNR supervisor (Leo Rock) both taught me that if one is to endure in the conservation business, he/she needed not only a proper education, but also a deep passion for what they are doing, accompanied by a tenacity exceeding that of the fiercest bulldog. 

So the current Fisheries Crew on the listing DNR Ship realize that “conservation is a marathon, not a sprint.” 

In other words, they know that all the present day political ineptitude, lack of leadership, and economic hardship just goes with the territory. 

As the famed outdoor writer, John Madson,  noted at the Division of Fisheries Statewide Meeting in 1979, “There are times when professionalism will sustain a person when about everything else seems to have failed. 

It’s a hedge against discouragement and failure, and the true professional is likely to still be churning along when the ribbon clerks and bush-leaguers have fallen by the wayside.  Why?  Because it’s their style.  It’s what they are trained to do, and dedicated to doing, and take pride in. 

Professional wildlifers (conservationists) are literally and figuratively defending ground against overwhelming forces. 

You are buying time for the principles of ecological diversity and quality and hoping for reinforcements that may never come. 

You are professionals and you may not have a helluva lot, but you’ve got each other, and your work and some awful good people out there who are depending on you to help give them a world worth living in………and that’s enough.”
So, for the present, professionalism is sustaining those who have toiled in the conservation vineyards for the past 20 years or more. 

This culture which has developed within the Division over the past 60 years is a formidable asset during these most trying of times. 

But what really bothers me for the long-term is that as the present highly experienced and older work force continues to retire and dwindle, who will pass on the Division culture?  And to whom? 

DNR biologists have two separate masters……..a political master and a science master. 

Certainly future DNR fisheries biologists will continue to have a scientific influence from their technical college training.  What will be missing on the science influence side is the lack of experienced DNR staff. 

After all, training is what you get in the classroom, education is what you on the job out in the boons……..and if there be no trained experienced field biologists to assist in both development of the technical and philosophical education of the leaders to be of the next generation, there will be a tremendous price to pay in terms of things natural and free. 

No transfer of culture will occur as it has automatically happened during the past six decades. 

The “can do philosophy” so deeply ingrained into the very fabric of being of present fisheries managers could well wither and die.

Another potential nail in the coffin of future Division culture and professionalism is the ever-increasing lack of opportunity for interaction……..not only with each other, but with their professional society, university, and private sector counterparts. 

In the past, the extremely strong interaction between the aforementioned entities has formed the basis for an informal, but extremely powerful force which provided balance against the ever-present Division of Fisheries political master. 

The strength of this unofficial alliance cannot be overstated. 

Losing it would be like a prize fighter losing the protection of his good left jab.   

Should such a constrained environment continue to drag on for a significant time period, then the political master may well gain the cultural upper hand and deliver a knock-out punch to science-based professional fisheries management within State Government.   

Such an eventuality would prove extremely detrimental, not only to the Division and it’s colleagues (universities, professional society, private sector), but more importantly,  to the aquatic resources with which they are charged to manage and protect for all citizens of the State.

Another point of extreme concern to me relative to the future of the Division is the apathy of the public in matters of fisheries and aquatic resource conservation. 

At one time there was a strong and very vocal voice relative to matters relating to state funded fisheries activities. 

No more.  Whether this has occurred due to continuing growth of the public’s lack of faith in government or the fact that our population is now urban rather than rural, I don’t claim to know. 

What is for sure is that anglers (except for a few select fishing organizations, which comprise only 2-3% of Illinois fishers)  don’t seem to much care what happens to the DNR or its fisheries programs………and the public at large with it’s deadly malady of Nature-Deficit Disorder certainly doesn’t give a whit. 

We can no longer count on public outcry to assist with the perilous trials and tribulations of the Division. 

Unfortunately, the Division can not succeed without public support. 

It’s a hard pill to swallow, but the once closed circle of mutual respect and need between the public and the DNR is broken, and the DNR is crumbling as a result.

At this point, permit my personal note:  if you are not confused, you are not thinking clearly. 

Just what does the future hold?  Is there genuine hope?  Right now you might feel somewhat like President Harry Truman did when seeking advise from his economic adviser. 

Truman complained that his staffer would say, “On the one hand the outlook for the economy looks good…………..but on the other hand, there are dark clouds on the horizon……….”

That is exactly what I’ve done to you today. 

On the one hand, I’ve given a possible NEAR-TERM SCENERIO with a bit of light at the end of the tunnel;  on the other hand I’ve given a potentially dark LONG-TERM SCENERIO. 

You, like Truman, are likely wishing for a one-handed economist. 

My crystal ball is cloudy, but let me take a crack at predicting where things might be headed. 

I think that we will never again see the Division of Fisheries as it once was. 

The “Good Old Days” will not return. 

Government is too dysfunctional, bureaucratic, corrupt,  and politically polarized to fix it. 

In the future I believe that many of the fisheries programs once provided will be seen as too expensive, if for no other reason than the pension and health care costs of the personnel involved. 

Programs like Urban Fishing,  management and stocking of Private, Public, and State ponds and lakes, Commercial Fishing, and Aquaculture will become privatized. 

The Division of Fisheries will continue to exist, albeit in a smaller role than previously (although it may become combined with other present DNR Divisions and/or State Departments (like Illinois EPA for example). 

I believe that environmental review of proposed projects with potential effects on rivers and streams, pollution fish kill investigations, Aquatic Nuisance Species, watershed management, etc. will continue to be handled by state employed biologists. 

The same goes for management of the state’s one million acres of Lake Michigan. 

How long it will take before this new order of things restores fisheries services to what they were in the late 1990’s is anybody’s guess. 

If complete restoration does indeed someday occur,  it will likely not be before the passage of two or three decades.  After all, it required 50 years to build the Division to its peak, and only 10 to raze it. 

I am no Chicken Little, but if one takes a long hard look at all the factors involved, I think that my view of the eventual outcome is fairly close to reality. 

It’s not the end of the world, but there is a long long road ahead with many rugged peaks to climb. 

In the end, this scenario can eventually provide protection of the public trust and the availability of what use to be public (now privately provided) services.  I think that is where we will find ourselves down the line. 

As difficult as it is presently for our professional fisheries folks,  challenges laying in wait around the corner in the fisheries arena will require even more courage and intestinal fortitude of folks if they are to achieve and hang on to their professionalism. 

Huge changes, lots of heartache, and many lost opportunities in the meantime………but the sun will continue to rise and “there will still be water in the crick come mornin’.”  So rejoice and roll up your sleeves, there is work to be done.