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Thursday, Oct. 22, 2009 08:11 pm

Conservation Congress

Youth interest, land access and funding are top priorities


After a five-year hiatus, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources will reconvene its Conservation Congress, a two-day conference that brings conservationists and recreation advocates together to discuss future opportunities for the agency and for the state.

This weekend, on Oct. 24 and 25, anyone with a stake in conservation and recreation — from preservationists and environmentalists to hunters and equestrians — will meet at DNR headquarters to review reports from the Natural Resources Advisory Board.

The board, created to advise the department on long-term policies, began seeking public input in July on three key topics: youth recruitment and retention, access to private lands and conservation funding. Board members will present their findings to Conservation Congress participants, who will then vote on final recommendations for these policies.

Conservation Congress began in 1993 and was modeled after the General Assembly to include representatives from various state interest groups. DNR director Marc Miller says the Blagojevich administration canceled Conservation Congress, citing cost and time constraints. But the Quinn administration, he says, recognizes the need for “giving DNR advocates their voice back.”

“We wanted to reopen this process and make sure that all of our constituents felt that there was an open line of communication,” Miller says. “We are going to restore faith in this agency by being open and transparent and by focusing on its mission.”

As part of its youth recruitment and retention discussion, Conservation Congress will discuss how to involve more kids in hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation. Tom Clay, executive director of the Illinois Audubon Society and a congress participant, says youth need to care for the natural world in order for it to survive.

“We need to be getting them outside and creating an awareness about the environment,” Clay says. “We need to [motivate] them into becoming lifelong land stewards. Maybe it’s something as simple as taking some kids fishing or getting them to Adams Wildlife Sanctuary, and showing them, ‘This is called honeysuckle. it doesn’t belong here.’”

The second discussion will focus on access to private lands. More than 96 percent of land in Illinois is privately owned, Miller says, making it costly for some people to get involved with hunting, fishing or other recreational activities.

“Pressures on hunting valuable areas has created a niche market of outfitters, who ask for leases from landowners to have exclusive hunting rights for a certain amount of money,” Miller explains. “That pressure has excluded some people from having access to land.”
Illinois is ranked 48 out of 50 states in terms of public land available to citizens, Miller adds.

Conservation funding is arguably the most critical policy discussion. According to Miller, DNR’s budget went from roughly $100 million to $50 million in the last 10 years. The department, which has also lost half of its employees, from 2,600 to 1,300, stands to lose more money and employees to state budget cuts. The congress will consider several revenue-boosting initiatives, including increases in hunting and fishing licenses and new funding sources from income or sales taxes.

Fran Harty, president of the Prairie State Conservation Coalition, a statewide organization comprised of conservation land trusts that preserve and manage wild land, worked for DNR for 20 years and remembers the original Conservation Congress. Even if funding is not readily available, he says, he commends DNR for putting plans in place that can be implemented when the state’s economy turns around.

“It doesn’t cost a whole lot of money to have people spending the weekend telling you their thoughts and then have a platform to move forward on,” Harty says. “That’s good government, and I wish all state agencies would do something like this.”

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