Cutbacks cause concern about DNR future
Written by Rockford Register Star   
Monday, 03 January 2005 02:41

My conversations with state Department of Natural Resources employees normally involve hunting seasons, fishing reports and campground occupancy rates.

That's changed in the past few months.

Now we talk about much more serious topics -- layoffs and their long-term effects.

They tell me tight budgets and politics are behind the scary atmosphere.

The DNR had 2,400 employees two years ago before an early-retirement program greatly reduced the staff. Most of those positions weren't filled. In October, 37 more DNR employees were laid off, and an additional 87 staffers will lose their jobs Jan. 14, reducing the agency's workforce to about 1,900.

And the rumor and fears among DNR workers are that more cuts will follow. They won't talk openly about the situation, afraid a negative remark could land them on the next layoff list.

Among those losing their jobs this month will be Rock Cut State Park's site superintendent Loren Swanson.

He has been with the DNR for 26 years, starting as a seasonal worker at Rock Cut. He also spent several years at Lake Le-Aqua-Na Park in Stephenson County before returning to Rock Cut.

The latest layoffs were targeting parks with dual superintendents. Dan Riggs is Rock Cut's superintendent in charge. In addition to Swanson, at least 10 other supers across the state are losing their jobs.

The laid-off workers have a three-year recall, if the position is to be refilled. However, the state could rename the position and avoid the rehire.

Rock Cut's 14-person staff will be down four people after Swanson leaves.

Other northern Illinois cuts will be at Spring Grove Fish Hatchery (McHenry County), Moraine Hills State Park (McHenry County), White Pines State Forest (Ogle County), and Lake Le-Aqua-Na.

And as the staff gets smaller, people who use the park may begin to see the effects. The grass may be longer; there may be a little more uncollected trash on the ground; and attention to the trail system's maintenance may start slipping.

You can only stretch an undermanned staff so far.

Steve Forss, who regularly mountain bikes on Rock Cut trails, said the cuts concerned him.

"If it got to the point where trails are shut down because of lack of maintenance, then it obviously would be a problem," said Forss, a member of the Rock Cut Trail Crew mountain biking club.

He also thought a staff cut might mean future trail or park projects "would be put on the back burner."

Hunters and fishermen could notice small changes, too.

Some signs of the reduced staff already can be seen. A relatively minor one I noticed this fall involved the reports on the firearm deer hunt harvest. They are normally released to the media a couple of days after the season, listing the totals taken in each county. This year the first-season report came out a week later.

Clerical workers also have been among the layoffs. These are the people who answer the telephones and process paperwork -- important links between the DNR and the public.

However, DNR spokesman Joe Bauer says there are no plans to close parks or cut services because of the layoffs.

"We are probably going to have some people stepping up, taking on a few additional responsibilities and a few more duties. And we are going to continue to carry on with the core mission of the department," he said. "We are not anticipating any huge public impact. There may be a few spots across the state where we may have to tweak some hours or adjust a few things. But any impact the public is going to see should be pretty minimal."

That's not very comforting to Jerry Paulson, executive director of Natural Land Institute, a Rockford-based private land conservation agency covering northern Illinois.

"We've been very alarmed about all the cuts in professional staff. Some have been with the DNR many years, especially in the program areas that we work in -- land acquisition, natural heritage program and the Conservation 2000 program, which has done a lot to restore wildlife habitat in northern Illinois," Paulson said.

"Under the previous administration, there was a very deliberate effort to make the DNR more of a professional organization. ... The direction that Gov. Blagojevich has gone is in the exact opposite direction."

He pointed to the governor's unsuccessful attempt to "essentially steal all of the money for the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and the natural area acquisition funds."

"I think the biggest disappointment is that the governor was elected with support from environmental conservation groups," Paulson said.

"We all realize the state is in a budget crisis, including the groups that I work with. We are willing to take our fair share of cutbacks. But what we've seen is overwhelming cuts in conservation program compared to other programs."

Critics also have said politics have played a role in the layoffs and hires. The Republicans had run the state since 1977 until Blagojevich's Democratic Party took over the governor's office in 2003. The victory meant new jobs for some party members, such as:

Tom Jackson, hired as the Lake Le-Aqua-Na Park superintendent. He is the Stephenson County Democratic Committee chairman.

Jim Eaton, hired as a superintendent at Ten Mile Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area. He's the Franklin County Democratic Committee chairman.

Eric McClusky, hired as a superintendent at Saline County State Fish and Wildlife Area. His father is the Saline County Democratic Committee chairman.

"We hired the most qualified individuals, and there was absolutely no political agenda with the people that were picked to lay off," Bauer said.

My hope is those DNR employees picking up the slack in the wake of the layoffs don't become overwhelmed, resign and further corrode the agency's ability to perform its important mission.

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