At the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, employees are starting to think DNR means “do not resuscitate,” because of state budget cuts, a senior official from the agency said Monday.
Travis Loyd, deputy director of the department, said the agency is facing problems because of state budget cuts, including employee attrition, leverage of state park fees and the loss of tourism dollars, if state parks are forced to cut more services.
“The DNR is a revenue generator like none other in southern Illinois,” Loyd said at the First Presbyterian Church of Cobden. “The people of southern Illinois depend on the revenue DNR generates.”
The department works with regional tourism agencies to improve the economy of the area, he said. His agency oversees hunting regulations, maintains camping sites and monitors waterway recreation at Illinois-owned natural areas. These activities draw thousands of tourists to southern Illinois each year, he said.
Loyd said he has traveled throughout the state to share information about state parks and other natural areas and to rally support in opposition of further funding cuts.
Loyd said his department has been operating with reduced funding from the state for the past six years, and the next round of budget cuts may do irreparable harm to the state’s natural resources.
“We are as lean and mean at DNR as it can get,” he said. “We’ve done everything we can do with the budget we have.”
Loyd said 10 years ago, the department had about 3,500 employees statewide to manage its programs. Today, there are 1,213 employees, and 35 percent of those are eligible for retirement during the next two years.
The state cannot afford to hire replacements for positions vacated by retirement, he said.
Loyd said the loss of manpower through attrition, or employee reduction because of retirements and voluntary resignations, means all Illinoisans, not only those who enjoy recreation in the state’s natural areas, are affected.
As an example, the department’s Office of Realty and Environmental Planning has three employees instead of the 20 it needs to review projects that involve state-owned real estate, he said.
If a corporation wants to develop land for housing, he said, that office ensures that no archaeological sites would be disturbed. Because the backlog for real estate reviews is so great, the approval process takes a lot longer. He said some developers become frustrated and take their projects to another state.
He said in order to protect the rights of all the citizens, his staff doesn’t cut corners while reviewing construction projects.
“We want to do it right — we just don’t have the staff,” Loyd said.
One of the solutions to the budget crisis that people have been proposing is the implementation of daily and annual park fees, Loyd said.
He said many people are willing to pay for either a daily use permit or for an annual fee to gain access to Illinois state parks in return for continuation of services, such as mowing and trail clearing.
Loyd said his department has asked state legislators to fast track the fee proposal. He said he expects to hear about some type of decision within 60 days.
Trips to the Chicago area were sometimes disheartening, he said, because he has seen as few as three people show up in a region where 70 percent of the state’s population resides in two counties.
Loyd said the support for his department from southern Illinois is much stronger than in other regions of the state.
Cobden resident Les Sheets, the event coordinator, said he had attended a similar event at John A. Logan College in February, and he estimated 150 people were at the event. He said he decided Cobden’s residents might be interested in hearing about the department’s budget issues and requested the visit from the department.
Audience member Red Beckley, of Cobden, asked Loyd about proposed hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the southeastern part of the state.
Loyd said representatives from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources are working with state legislators to regulate fracking and that Illinois is looking at New York’s and West Virginia’s laws to examples.
Loyd said he is passionate about preserving and maintaining Illinois state parks and natural resources for future generations.
“Some of the things we would let go for budgetary purposes, we will never get back,” he said.