Nature Preserve Commission Funding uncertain

By Gus Bode

The battle to protect Illinois’ natural resources continues to heat up as Gov. Rod Blagojevich promised earlier this month no professional biologists’ jobs would be lost.

Up to this point, he has still not given any indication of how this will be accomplished, although his budget proposal would eliminate funding for the positions.

The governor’s spokespeople have not returned repeated phone calls inquiring about the issue.

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The battle began when Blagojevich announced in his February budget address he would like to take a holiday from land acquisition. The $34 million allocated to buying and maintaining land would be redirected into the Illinois General Revenue Fund. This includes the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission’s $1 million budget.

The funds cut from the Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development Fund and the Natural Areas Acquisition Fund would leave more than 40 field biologists high and dry. It would also leave about 83,000 acres of rare natural areas unprotected and without maintenance, according to a fact sheet compiled by The Nature Conservancy.

The governor’s proposal has created an outcry among many nature groups, including the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy. Even Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn has joined the opposition. He said in a press conference earlier this month he was firmly committed to preserving the programs and their personnel.

According to the INPC website, Illinois was the first state to create a program designed to protect natural areas. Since then, 13 other states have followed suit. Genie Ehnis-Lester, spokeswoman for The Nature Conservancy, said the public has consistently supported the program since the first commission was created in 1963.

According to an article in the State Journal-Register, this was proven when a similar budget proposal by former Gov. George Ryan failed in the legislature in 1999. Ryan proposed slashing two-thirds of the INPC’s funding from Real Estate Transfer Tax. The funding was restored after a tremendous public outcry.

Blagojevich’s proposal has met the same type of resistance, according to John Schwegman, a retired Department of Natural Resources botanist and one of the first INPC employees.

According to Schwegman, the cut’s effects would devastate Illinois’ natural resources and put it further behind in preserving open space. He said although the governor makes it sound as if Illinois would just stop acquiring land for a year, the cuts encompass much more.

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“It’s not just land acquisition, but it would be laying off the entire staff of the Nature Preserves Commission,” he said. “I don’t think the public realizes that it would be laying off all these professional biologists that manage the areas.”

If the legislature passes the current budget proposal, Schwegman said a total of 458 years of combined employee knowledge would be permanently lost. This means the removal of an average of 12 years experience in the field for each out-of-work employee.

Schwegman named several preserves in Southern Illinois that would cease to have maintenance without the biologists’ assistance. Among those were Fern Rock Nature Preserve in Giant City State Park, Herrin Pond Nature Preserve, a preserve in Fern Cliff State Park and Ozark Hills Nature Preserve.

In addition, land not owned by the state would cease to be under its protection. Schwegman said when the program began, the state promised help to those who wish to keep private acres in their natural conditions. He said without the programs, these areas would be prey to development.

According to Ehnis-Lester, one of the biologists’ concerns is what would happen to Illinois’ remaining natural prairie. She said right now, the Prairie State has less than one one-hundredth of one percent of prairie left.

Schwegman said without personnel to burn back the overgrowth each year, the land would merge into forest.

“It needs some balance,” he said. “I know the state’s in a budget crisis, but it’s just too great of a loss. We have to put some kind of priority on saving at least what we can of this knowledge base and those people who have donated private property.”

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