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Thursday, Feb. 3, 2005 10:52 pm

Trouble at DNR

DNR director Joel Brunsvold, a good guy whose agency is being dismantled

Red Burchyett is getting his wheelchair and his job back.

That’s good news for Burchyett, who was laid off several weeks ago from his mechanic’s job at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Ten years ago, the state bought him a customized wheelchair that helped him do his job by raising him to a standing position. When he was laid off, the state told him he couldn’t take his wheelchair with him.

The Southern Illinoisan of Carbondale published a story about Burchyett at the time, but nothing happened. Last Friday, the ChicagoTribune ran a piece about the incident, and by 8:30 that very morning, Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s office had issued a press release announcing that DNR had been ordered to give Burchyett both his wheelchair and his old job.

I guess we know which newspaper the governor reads.

I’m happy for Burchyett, but the problems at DNR go far deeper than one man’s travails.

The director of DNR is former state Rep. Joel Brunsvold, a truly good guy who has wanted to run the agency for as long as I can remember. When Blagojevich was elected, Brunsvold finally got his chance. But it hasn’t turned out the way he’d hoped.

George Ryan’s early-retirement program for state employees slashed DNR’s payroll to the bone, then Blagojevich cut its spending even further in an attempt to help balance the state budget.

Brunsvold was even ordered by the governor’s office to fire one of his best friends after he publicly complained about some of the cuts. And a longtime DNR budget officer who was loyal to the agency was forced out and replaced by someone handpicked by the governor’s budget director. The result is that the governor’s office can now raid DNR’s budget almost at will. In the past two years alone, DNR’s employee headcount has been slashed from 2,300 to 1,700, with 87 laid off in January alone.

Why should you pay attention to any of this? After all, they’re just state bureaucrats. Nobody wants to pay higher taxes.

Here’s why. The Department of Natural Resources manages state parks, wildlife areas, and open spaces. Each generation is entrusted with maintaining and improving these precious resources before passing them along — and we’re not doing a very good job.

Many of the local and regional site managers have been replaced with Democratic political hacks who have little or no experience. Skilled, experienced managers might be able to juggle things long enough to ride out the budgetary storm. The hacks have neither the skill nor the experience to keep things on an even keel. Sportsmen and conservationists throughout the state are rightly concerned that we’re heading for an implosion.

Until the Tribune ran the story about Burchyett, the governor had shown little interest in the agency, other than as a source of cash for the rest of his ever-increasing budget and a source of jobs for his political supporters.

Last year, he tried to purge the agency of scientists and trained field researchers before the General Assembly stopped him in his tracks.

The governor has yet to even visit a state park, depending on the yes-men and women he’s surrounded himself with to reassure him that everything is fine.

Until the Tribune took up Burchyett’s cause, the stock response from the governor every time somebody complained about the DNR cuts was to say, essentially, “I’ve got other priorities.”

Bob Grosso knows about those “priorities.” Grosso retired last year after 31 years at DNR, the last several as the site superintendent of Illinois Beach State Park. Grosso worked for Democrat Dan Walker when he was first hired, and he voted for Blagojevich in 2002. But Grosso told the Chicago Sun-Times in December that Blagojevich was “dismantling the department” and replacing hardworking employees with Democratic county party chairmen so that he could “build a patronage army in Illinois.”

Unlike the governor, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn is an outdoors enthusiast who often visits state parks and wildlife areas. Quinn wants to end a $25 million state subsidy to mostly out-of-state companies that extract methane gas from landfills and use that money to help preserve and improve the state’s parks and areas along Illinois’ waterways.

It’s a good idea, and even if it’s rejected by the Legislature (as has happened many times before), it is a good start in the debate. Preserving our state’s natural heritage requires a lot more than issuing a feel-good press release about returning a man’s wheelchair.

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