A History Of DNR Budget Cuts In Georgia

Which one of your kids do you shoot? That question was posed by former DNR Commissioner Lonice Barrett in 2003. Too often, the answer to that question is... Cut Sportsmen's Programs.

Steve Burch | November 1, 2005

For years, GON has attempted to alert sportsmen to a continued assault on hunting, fishing, and law enforcement within the Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

This assault, also known as budget cuts, has hit personnel and programs that should service sportsmen, the very folks who have traditionally — and gladly — funded wildlife conservation in this state.

These budget cuts have been and are directives of the governor’s office. What DNR then chooses to offer up as cuts is up to the department. This year, the governor is asking for a 2 percent cut and a 4 percent add-back, or enhancement. This year, sportsmen should see a 2 percent net gain in services. Are we getting that?

It has long been our contention that since sportsmen pay for $20 million of WRD’s $28 million budget, hunting and fishing programs within WRD’s budget should be exempt from budget cuts, if not completely, at least in an amount or percentage proportionate to the amount of WRD’s budget that we fund. If we pay 70 percent of our own way, why are we losing programs and services, and how on earth are sportsmen’s programs and services being hit harder than those of other DNR agencies?

People a lot smarter than us say that sportsmen don’t want WRD’s budget to be funded solely by license fees, that 30 percent funding from the General Fund is a good idea. We won’t argue that point, but we will argue that because we fund 70 percent of WRD’s budget, that sportsmen’s programs should be disproportionately protected from budget cuts, and certainly not disproportionately cut.

The continued slide of sportsmen’s programs from the forefront of DNR’s focus comes as DNR wrestled with issues it considered most important. There were many mitigating circumstances that served to justify the decisions taken by DNR leaders in the past. However, taken in the whole, there has been a steady diminution of staff and resources directed at hunting and fishing by the lead agency responsible for husbanding sportsman’s programs and issues. That trend continues, and it has never been more clear than in the current recommendations made by DNR reported on in the October issue of GON.

It is important to examine where sportsmen rank in DNR’s assessment of its role. This massive state agency covers the Wildlife Resources Division, plus Environmental Protection Division, State Parks, Coastal Resources and other agencies including the state’s air force. DNR has ranked its major tasks into seven categories. The second of these categories is wildlife, and one would think sportsmen would fare well under such a ranking. But the last of these categories is recreation. Sportsmen are recreation, not wildlife. On the scale the DNR uses to quantify its mission, the group that accounts for more than 20 percent of its overall funds and 70 percent of the funds it takes to run WRD ranks dead last in importance to DNR’s mission.

DNR’s mission statement never mentions hunters or hunting, nor does the mission statement of WRD, although WRD has a supporting goal to “provide for quality recreational fishing.”

So it has been that over the course of a number of years, the DNR leadership has emphasized those things that it believed were in the best interest of Georgia and Georgians.

While the budget cuts may be directives of the governor’s office, the choices DNR has been making over the years have resulted in a chipping away at hunting and fishing programs, despite strong sportsman support for the agency most sportsmen still call “Game and Fish.”

It is true that in most years that some of the programs on DNR’s hit list are not actually cut. In DNR’s defense, if the only thing you identify to cut is something that is popular, then likely it won’t be cut, and maybe the budget cutters will go away. Last year that tactic was successful when DNR offered up the entire BQI program as its cut. It is a good and proven strategy, and WMAs on past cut lists remain open today. Thus, there is evidence the theory works.

But, it is also true that there has been erosion of WRD programs, and when funds become available again, rather than restoring the programs and personnel axed in previous cuts, DNR has moved on to other programs and staffing. In earlier budget-cutting rounds, DNR has frequently asserted that there was no fat left to cut. Assuming this is true, then one also would conclude that what was cut is now needed again. However, those cut programs do not get reinstated first when a budget increase is available.

This year, a budget increase is available. Instead of restoring fisheries, game management, or law enforcement positions that have been cut in past years, DNR decided to create six positions within the Game Management Section of WRD. Those positions are a conference-center coordinator, a wildlife-interpretive specialist, a secretary, a food-services manager, and two food-service supervisors.

Call your local WRD game management office and ask them if they’re overstaffed right now. Ask them if they could use a warm body to get some work done on a tractor. Call your local law-enforcement ranger and ask him or her what they’ve been told lately about firing up the old pickup and patrolling for violations.

GON is not against outdoor education at Charlie Elliot. We’ve never been critical of a hotel being built on what was originally called a WMA/PFA and bought with your license money. We are, however, for putting sportsmen’s programs and wildlife and fisheries management at their proper priority within DNR.

Below is a sample of some of the cut recommendations made by DNR in previous years. While not all of the recommended cuts were taken by the governor’s office during those years, one can still get a sense of the budgetary pressure placed on WRD and traditional sportsmen’s programs over the years by the recommendations of DNR.

November 1995: Close Six WMAs

In November 1995, the DNR proposal called for the closure of six Wildlife Management Areas. They were:

• Coleman River: 11,000 acres

• Dyals Pasture: 9,625 acres

• King Tract: 9,671 acres

• Muskhogean: 5,805 acres

• Rayonier: 19,426 acres

• Treat Mountain: 5,400 acres

A total of 60,927 acres was nominated for the budget ax by DNR. That was the year they asked for $700,000 to run an electrical line to Ossabaw Island.

September 1996: Cut Seven Rangers and Two Captains

In September of 1996, GON reported this on DNR’s proposed budget cuts.

“The Manchester and Waycross law-enforcement districts may be consolidated, which means that Capt. Ken Athon of the Manchester District and Capt. Denny Hill in Waycross will be off the force. This will leave the Manchester district covered by the Macon office, and the Waycross district covered by the Metter office. When asked if these redirections will denigrate the effectiveness of the law enforcement division, then Col. V.J. Garrison said, “This would spread law enforcement too thin to suit me, but I don’t make these decision. Any loss of law-enforcement personnel is a loss to the sportsmen, in my opinion. What I would like is 20 new officers, but that is not what I am getting.”

August 1997 Cut 10 people and Four WMAs

In August of 1997 the DNR Board itemized the following favorites if anything had to be cut.

• Eliminate nine Conservation Ranger positions.

• Stop paying lease fees for the Berry College Refuge.

• Cut Rich Mountain WMA

• Cut Swallow Creek WMA

• Cut Cedar Creek WMA

• Cut Dixon Memorial WMA

• Cut a wildlife technician

According to Bill Fletcher, the person who holds this wildlife technician position specializes in heavy equipment work on northeast Georgia WMAs.

“This would impact hunters quite a bit,” said Fletcher. “We sometimes put in as many as 20 new food plots in a year, and without this person, we’ll be lucky to get half of them in. This would put us behind on clearing wildlife openings, keeping up food plots, and putting in new ones.”

December 2001: 29 DNR Positions Proposed for Cuts; 26 are WRD Positions

In December of 2001, GON‘s report on the budget stated:

“DNR has completed mandatory proposals, ordered by Gov. Roy Barnes, to cut operating budgets in face of shrinking state tax collections. Though all of the divisions of DNR participated in the budget-cut proposals, the Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) stands to take a more painful hit than Parks, the Environmental Protection Division, or any other division. In all, the proposed cuts name 29 filled DNR positions, currently occupied by a state employee, for potential cuts; 26 of these folks work for WRD Game Management or Fisheries.

March 2003: Vehicle Crisis Begins

In March of 2003, Lt Col. Terry West said, “When I hired on in the mid-80s we had a five-year, 130,000-mile rotation. If your vehicle met both of these criteria, it was replaced. Right now, the years are unlimited and the vehicle has to have at least 130,000 miles or it can’t even be considered for replacement. I have 72 vehicles in my fleet that meet that criteria, and we have budgeted this year enough money to buy seven. It’s been that way for at least five years, and each year we get further behind.

September 2003: 17 Rangers Cut

In September of 2003, GON reported the following:

DNR Commissioner Lonice Barrett summed up the budget situation on August 19 when he told the DNR Board that the latest budget cuts had been like deciding, “which one of your kids do you want to shoot?” These cuts recommended by DNR:

• Abolish 17 ranger positions.

• Close Little Satilla and Rogers Tract WMAs.

• Cut BQI in Houston and Treutlen counties and eliminate one quail biologist.

• Cut four positions in fisheries.

August 2005: Cut 16 WRD personnel and close 12 WMAs

And now to the recommendations from the DNR Board and Commiss-ioner which were reported on last month by GON.

Commissioner Holcomb has taken GON to task for its report last month. His defense of the actions of the Board and his staff are on page 38.

The fact remains that the Board is in the same position today as it was in 2003 when Lonice Barrett observed that the decision is, which of your kids do you want to shoot?

What is substantially different now from our situation in 2003 is that the DNR Board and Commissioner are being asked to increase the net budget by 2 percent. In examining the actions of DNR, in their recommendations to the governor, there is no restoring of sportsmen’s programs that were once cut due to a lack of funds. Further, one can see that DNR elected to place no EPD children on the firing line. No Historic Preservation children or Coastal Resources children or children from the Commissioner’s Office are tapped to be shot. State Parks must sacrifice two of its children.

Apparently, sportsmen have 16 children to spare, based on the current DNR recommendations.

It is a fact that placing a program or personnel on the cut list does not mean that those cuts will actually occur. We may not lose 12 WMAs and 16 personnel this year. But history demonstrates that when the legislature does take cuts, it is almost always chooses something that has been nominated and is on the DNR recommended cut list.

It is true — whether these WMAs and employees are cut or not — that sportsmen and WRD face the opportunity to be cut more often than other areas of DNR. What sportsmen are seeing in the recommendations is simply a funding of high-priority programs and tasks of the agency and reduction of funding on low-priority programs. These are difficult choices, that we understand.

The governor’s request to state agencies was clear. He asked, “Where would you cut if you had to cut 2 percent of your budget, and where would you add if you could increase your budget by 4 percent?”

In coming issues, GON will continue to follow sportsmen’s dollars through the process to connect the purchase of a license with the expenditure of WRD dollars.

Sportsmen need to understand the logic used by DNR when it answers the governor’s questions by cutting three conservation rangers and closing 12 WMAs while hiring three cooks, a secretary, and a conference coordinator… and claims that sportsmen have traded up.

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