New DNR director has long list of goals

Chris Young

For Marc Miller, new director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, reopening state parks closed last year as a result of budget cuts was just No. 1 on his to-do list.

It’s a long list, he says, that also includes restoring staff morale, boosting natural resources funding and improving trust with cooperating agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And then there are all the varied constituent groups — kept on the sidelines for years — who now hope someone at DNR will see it their way.

Even with the state’s ballooning $9 billion deficit casting a cloud over funding options, the mood at DNR headquarters at the Illinois State Fairgrounds was jubilant last week as Gov. Pat Quinn made the park-reopening announcement.

“You’re on your way back, and we’re going to rebuild this department,” Quinn told the cheering employees.

In his office afterward, Miller said the challenge will be to keep momentum going in the face of an economic picture that promises little money for rebuilding. “We’re going to fight and scratch to fund this agency,” he said.

Miller said many of the employees creatively kept programs going in the face of what he calls “capricious budget cuts.”

“We’re going to continue to capture that entrepreneurial spirit,” he said. “The state’s not flush, and neither are we.”

Miller said special funds administered by DNR, including the Wildlife and Fish Fund, Habitat Stamp Fund, Natural Areas Acquisition Fund and others, may give the agency some flexibility. But those funds can’t be used to simply operate DNR, he said. They have to be used for specific purposes, such as wildlife and fish restoration, or buying high-quality natural areas.

Sometimes, money is available, but there is not enough staff support to manage a new program. And variables such as the number of out-of-state hunters willing to travel to Illinois — and pay for pricey permits — will determine how much money is ultimately available.

The Natural Areas Acquisition Fund and Open Space Land Acquisition and Development Fund both receive money from a tax on real estate sales. With the housing market in the dumps, Miller said, “We’d better take a conservative view of those funds.

“There’s going to be a good deal of common sense needed.”

Miller said writing a budget for fiscal 2010, which begins July 1, is the next big thing on his to-do list.

Last year, DNR’s share of general revenue funds declined while appropriations from special funds increased, raising concerns that DNR might be weaned off general revenue funds altogether and operate mainly on income from licenses and fees. Some state wildlife agencies operate this way, but they don’t have the state museum system or mine regulation under their purview, as Illinois’ DNR does.

Miller said Quinn often quotes a section of the state constitution that requires Illinois citizens to play a role in protecting their environment.

“It’s my view that state taxpayers should have a role in that,” Miller said. “These are our shared resources, and we have a responsibility to pass them on to future generations.”

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528 orchris.young@sj-r.com.

Golf trail?

During his brief tenure as director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Kurt Granberg said he wanted to promote a golf trail in southern Illinois.

Asked about that proposal after he was appointed director Feb. 5, new DNR Director Marc Miller said any initiatives will have to be true to DNR’s purpose.

“We want to make sure if we’re taking any actions they are pursuant and consistent with the mission of the agency, which is to protect manage and enhance our natural resources,” he said.