Out of Conflict, a Congress of Consensus

While the Congress in Washington D.C. squabbles, divergent groups in Illinois converge around rebuilding the state’s Department of Natural Resources after years of drastic budget cuts. Out of very different visions of conservation, some broad themes emerge at the 2014 Illinois Conservation Congress. Could this be how government is supposed to work?

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State natural-resource departments face a tough challenge trying to meet the conflicting expectations of citizens, industries and advocacy organizations. It’s certainly a test in Illinois, where the state Department of Natural Resources serves 12.9 million residents plus out-of-state visitors.

That challenge hasn’t been made any easier in recent years by cuts of more than 50 percent to the department’s state funding.

Antagonism and disagreement can run deep when stakeholders include groups as diverse as environmental groups, mineral companies, sportsmen, historical preservationists and families who just want a nice vacation.

The way states manage their natural resources can vary tremendously, with vastly different effects on the environment, the economy and society.

These struggles take a lot of energy. But these natural conflicts may well be an integral part of sorting out issues and reaching compromise to develop the best policies.

Being a member of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Advisory Board is a constant lesson in learning about diverse and sometimes conflicting opinions. A lot of people, including 200,000 on the agency’s mailing list, are deeply interested in the state’s natural resources. It takes time and effort to parse even the most general outlines for the direction of the agency, since it affects rural and urban areas in a state that stretches from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River to the Ohio River.

I had the privilege of working with Director Marc Miller and his staff in planning the recently completed 2014 Conservation Congress in Springfield. The Congress, held during April, was the culmination of more than a year of effort that included regional meetings and interactive webinars, an e-mail survey and time for web comments after the 2014 event. 

Making sure the congress met its constitutional mandate to protect the state’s natural environment took a large chunk of the planning time. The department’s responsibilities include managing state parks; conserving resources like fish, wildlife and forests; regulating mines and minerals; and a host of other activities – right down to running the Illinois State Museum.

Photo courtesy of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources lost more than half its funding from 2002 to 2012, resulting in a backlog of repairs on equipment like this worn out truck. A new funding stream will return some of the department's revenue.

The 2014 Conservation Congress needed to unfold gradually so that it could reach a broad variety of constituents. The timing of the congress was particularly important in the wake of Illinois legislation that provided a source of sustainable core funding for IDNR based on license plate fees. Passage of that bill in 2012 fulfilled a goal set by the 2009 Conservation Congress to mitigate deep agency budget cuts.

In fact, IDNR had been besieged fiscally since at least 2002. According to Miller, the cuts were deep. General revenue funding fell from $106.8 million to a low of $48.9 million in 2012. Staffing decreased from 2,600 to 1,200.  The reductions resulted in across-the-board service, land-protection and maintenance cutbacks.

The 2012 legislative package should generate between $20-30 million per year in new revenue, placing IDNR’s annual budget above the $70-million mark. While this is lower than the peak, it will at least allow the agency to replace 400 to 500 employees, nibble away at some of the major maintenance issues in parks and allow nearly bankrupt fee-based funds, such as licenses, to be replenished.

Loss of public trust is one of the lingering issues of years of starvation budgets. Inadequate services alienated many constituents, and the condition of parks was frustrating for employees and visitors alike. Topics covered in breakout sessions during the 2014 Conservation Congress were partly designed to rebuild the agency’s image. They included:

  • Communicating IDNR’s work to the public.
  • Educating the public about our natural resources.
  • Enhancing the visitor experience at state sites with programs and services.
  • Protecting the public and natural resources.
  • Providing opportunities for all constituents to use state sites.
  • Expanding the department’s constituencies to include more urban residents.
  • Preserving our natural habitats, giving special attention to habitat acquisition and management, protecting against invasive species and setting priorities for the department’s resources.
  • Working with “friends groups” and attracting more volunteers.
  • And looking at future challenges for managing wildlife.

Considering the controversies that often flare up over specific environmental issues, the 2014 Conservation Congress was an opportunity for a diverse group of people to get together and discuss areas of agreement. Hot-button issues such as fracking and managing the deer population faded to the background as participants examined ways to help the agency recover from the traumatic budget cuts and do its job more effectively in the future.

The congress was a short-term success because people set aside differences and found agreement on larger agency-level issues and needs. The longer term efforts will work themselves out with the uncertainties that always accompany a dynamic political economy where some, including state legislators, even question the need for the agency’s existence.

Whatever the imperfections of the system and it institutions, it is really good – no, excellent – to be part of a diverse group of people that can calmly discuss important issues that affect our environment in Illinois.

The broad scope of IDNR’s work, which affects both rural and urban areas, makes its task all the more difficult. Yet there is certain satisfaction in knowing that people of different viewpoints can put basic disagreements aside and build a common future that bridges ideological, political, economic and social differences.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

 

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