DNR Commissioner Noel Holcomb Responds To Article On DNR Budget
Editor’s Note: In the October issue this magazine ran an article written by GON Publisher Steve Burch titled, “DNR’s Budget Preference: Close 12 WMAs, Fire Three Wardens, and Hire Three Cooks!” The following is a written response to that article by Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Noel Holcomb.
October 13, 2005
Mr. Steve Burch
Georgia Outdoor News
4331 Seven Islands Road
Madison, Georgia 30650
I was disappointed to see that you used your article in last month’s issue to mislead your readers by portraying the leadership at DNR as determined to divert funding from hunters and anglers to non-sportsman’s projects. Nothing could be further from the truth. You know me as a sportsman committed to natural resources management and to suggest that I would recommend raiding those funds at the expense of hunters and anglers is very inaccurate and unfair.
You are correct in reporting that the Wildlife Resources Division’s (WRD) budget is $28 million and that approximately $20 million of that funding is generated each year through license sales. But you are wrong in stating that the extra $8 million goes to what you have dubbed “non-sportsmen’s programs.” Sportsmen’s dollars are not diverted as confirmed by a third party audit.
Our budget must undergo periodic, comprehensive audits by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This is a requirement for getting the federal funds that added more than $16 million to the state funds in 2004. Any misappropriation of license fees is deemed a “diversion” and puts the WRD’s entire wildlife and fisheries management program at risk. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides additional financing to the WRD for sportsmen projects in the form of matching funds that come from the surcharge on hunting and fishing equipment. We are extremely fortunate to receive state funding for wildlife management above the amount generated through license fees. Many states must depend on license fees alone to finance these programs.
Despite the fact that no license monies go to support the Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center, you are extremely critical of the emphasis the WRD places on education. Georgia hunters and anglers see education as critical to their future, since less than 10 percent of citizens hunt or fish. It’s absolutely imperative that the other 90 percent of people — and their children — understand the important role of hunting and fishing in natural resources management, even if they don’t participate themselves. Every public involvement plan the WRD has developed since 1990 highlights the importance of education as a wildlife management and conservation tool. This includes the recently completed Statewide Deer Management Plan that you yourself helped to produce as a member of the committee.
As far as vehicles are concerned, once again, your numbers are correct but tell only half the story. The problem of aging vehicles occurs throughout state government. Within the DNR, there has been no appropriation for vehicle replacements since 2001. But the WRD has not been penalized disproportionately. Their vehicles are somewhat worse off because of the high mileage incurred by rangers, technicians and biologists under some rough conditions. But even vehicles assigned to one facility, such as a state park, are in poor condition.
While the DNR did not make the budget rules, we will follow them. While your article didn’t make it clear, budget cuts and budget enhancements are two completely separate processes. We were required to develop a 2 percent budget cut proposal as well as a 4 percent budget enhancement proposal. We could not simply propose a 2 percent enhancement and say we had completed the task. Per the budget guidelines, we also could not put items on the enhancement list that are part of the cut proposal. After more than 10 consecutive years of budget cuts, there are simply no painless proposals.
We work hard to educate the decision makers about our budget, but the final state budget must be balanced. This is a major undertaking as the funding required for formula-based entitlement programs for healthcare and education continues to grow with our population. There is no guarantee that DNR will receive either a 2 percent cut — or a 4 percent enhancement, though your article presents this as “a done deal.” The economy likely will be the determining factor in the agency’s final budget.
At this stage in the budget process last year, the WRD was asked to identify more than $800,000 in proposed cuts. Their proposed cuts included the closure of two leased WMAs and four other WMAs on federal lands and the loss of eight ranger positions. In the end, the WRD ultimately saw a slight funding increase thanks to a budget process that allows us to respond to questions from decision makers at the Capitol as well as the support of the DNR Board and our constituents. It is through the leadership within the agency coupled with the prominence and high profile of hunting and fishing programs that allowed enhanced programming even in one of the tightest budget years in the recent past.
And there is more to the story for hunters and anglers than the current state budget. For example, through the Governor’s Land Conservation Program, hunters and anglers will enjoy a nearly 10,000-acre addition to the Altamaha WMA and a new 2,400-acre property in Thomasville. Regardless of the source of money used, I am committed to providing hunting and fishing opportunities to the maximum extent possible on newly acquired lands. Additionally, there is increased hunting opportunity on state parks.
You question my leadership when you know that I have made wildlife conservation a priority throughout my 25-year career with the WRD. I have worked from the north Georgia mountains to the barrier islands of our coast. Even after I was appointed as WRD Director and later DNR Commissioner, I have made it a priority to spend considerable time outdoors with my son hunting and fishing. Passing on this tradition is a responsibility that I take very seriously.
Steve, we have spent a great deal of time trying to educate you about the state budget process, but you failed to use that information fairly or responsibly. Sportsmen can get more facts about our budget on our website at <www.gadnr.org>. You have done your readers a great disservice by misrepresenting our budget and our commitment to the hunters and anglers of Georgia.
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