Out of Conflict, a Congress of Consensus

[imgbelt img=ConCon4.jpg]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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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.

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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