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Outdoors Column | Les Winkeler: Financial state of IDNR in a pandemic

Outdoors Column | Les Winkeler: Financial state of IDNR in a pandemic

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Last week I took a whimsical flight into a perfect world where the State of Illinois was financially solvent and had money to throw at the Department of Natural Resources.

This week, we’ll stay grounded in the harsh reality.

Colleen Callahan, director of the IDNR, had the opportunity to speak to some Southern Illinois constituents Monday night on a Zoom sportsman’s meeting arranged by State senator Dale Fowler. I posed the question of how the pandemic would affect state funding.

Callahan, as is her modus operandi, was frank.

She didn’t filibuster. She didn’t beat around the bush. She didn’t tap dance around ifs, ands or buts.

Callahan simply said, “I don’t know.”

That’s not the answer we wanted to hear. It would have been nice to hear everything is going to be fine, that the IDNR has put aside a sizable nest egg to see it through difficult times … But, that would have been, in the vernacular of the day – malarkey.

The fact is, state revenues are down because of the pandemic. Another fact, it appears from the behavior of about 50 percent of Americans, the likelihood of getting the pandemic under control without vaccines is remote. And, even when a vaccine arrives, it will likely be another year before things return to any semblance of normalcy.

That means IDNR, which has already been stretched thin, will likely be facing several more lean years.

However, all the news isn’t dire.

The Illinois legislature passed the Sustainability Bill in 2012, giving IDNR a dedicated source of funding. The bill requires $2 from every license plate be dedicated to the IDNR. That isn’t enough money for the agency to flourish, but the Sustainability Bill means IDNR isn’t solely dependent on the whims of the legislature, or totally at the mercy of economic trends.

The infusion of cash has been a godsend for the IDNR. The agency was ravaged by then Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Funds meant for the agency were illegally swept and used for other purposes. Deep personnel cuts were made and necessary maintenance was deferred.

Since that time, jobs have been filled. Necessary repairs have been made. But, there is still so much to be done.

We are woefully short of Conservation Police Officers. Most “game wardens" as they were formerly called, serve 3-4 counties. There is no other word than inadequate to describe that situation. Site superintendents, the people who oversee state parks and conservation areas, have as many as six or seven sites under their control. That isn’t sustainable.

And, while some maintenance backlogs are being taken care of, there is still much work to do. One of the questions posed to Callahan on Monday night involved the fate of the shuttered Rend Lake Resort – a casualty of the Blagojevich budget cuts and the Bruce Rauner budget impasse.

Another bit of good news, our current governor, J.B. Pritzker, seems to understand the importance of IDNR, it doesn’t seem to be a nuisance anymore.

If anything, IDNR seems more relevant than ever. Callahan reported Monday night that 674,178 fishing licenses were sold this year, up nearly 92,000 from the previous year. The one bright spot of the pandemic is that closures of restaurants, bars and parks have turned our attention back to nature.

Finally, historically the IDNR has proven to be resilient. Somehow, site superintendents, biologists and CPOs have made things work with duct tape, WD-40, baling wire and ingenuity. However, some cold, hard cash would be a big help.

For the outdoors person, this will be one of the major storylines of 2021.

LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les@winkelerswingsandwildlife.com, on Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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