New Georgia DNR Leadership Team Passionate About Hunting & Fishing

Meet DNR Commissioner Walter Rabon and Deputy Commissioners Trevor Santos and Thomas Barnard.

Mike Bolton | April 2, 2024

The new Georgia Department of Natural Resources Commissioner, Walter Rabon, with a big bull redfish caught last October in Darien.

It is way too early for a Georgia outdoors state of the union assessment, but seven months after a wholesale change of the leadership at Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), hunters and anglers must feel encouraged by the players on their side.

DNR Commissioner Walter Rabon and Deputy Commissioners Trevor Santos and Thomas Barnard are all avid hunters and fishermen. They say they are blessed to have the full support from Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and Speaker of the House Jon Burns, all who are also avid sportsmen. Have Georgia outdoorsmen ever had so much political power on their side?

Of the three, Commissioner Rabon faces the most unenviable task. He must oversee employees not only in the Wildlife Resources Division, but also in the Coastal Resources, Law Enforcement and Parks and Historic Sites divisions of DNR. This adds up to 1,700 employees with vastly different ideas and wants. Couple this with more than 1.2 million anglers, 800,000 plus hunters, and tens of millions more hikers, campers, mountain bikers, paddlers, bird watchers, state-park visitors and others who have ideas of where his focus should lie.

If Commissioner Rabon developed a thick skin in his two decades as a Georgia game warden, he’ll probably need it as he juggles so many with different ideas, opinions and viewpoints.

“Routinely, you encounter people with wildlife issues and those issues depend on what they are involved with,” said Rabon. “Georgia wildlife is important to their quality of life. They may disagree on certain issues and have different ideas, but what they all want is more similar than those differences.

“I can say that the good thing is that all are passionate. It is important to take all those interests into account and make decisions on what’s in the best interest for our state.”

Commissioner Rabon’s job is multi-faceted and time consuming. He is also the chairman of the Coastal Marshland Protection Committee and the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Board of Trustees, as well as a board member of the Jekyll Island Authority, Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority, Sapelo Island Heritage Authority, Stone Mountain Memorial Association, State Properties Commission, Georgia Natural Resources Foundation, Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission, Southwest Georgia Regional Railroad Authority and the State Water Council.

Needless to say, there are a lot of meetings in his life. How did he reach that point?

“The outdoors all began for me at age five when I was fortunate enough to have a father who took me bream and crappie fishing,” he said. “I grew up on Lake Sinclair.

“As I got older, I started hunting for squirrels and rabbits and eventually developed a passion for hunting white-tailed deer. In high school, when I wasn’t on the soccer field, I was in the woods or water year-round.

“Now, if I had to choose one thing to hunt for, it would be turkeys. I love turkey hunting.”

When asked what he considers are his qualifications for the job, he has a quick answer. He said he’s not just an observer. He’s a participant.

“I think my best qualification for this job is that I’m an angler, hunter and boater,” he said. “I’m 55 now and I have been doing it since I was five. I’ve devoted my professional career to DNR. It’s a joy to me that my professional life and personal life have always been centered around the outdoors.”

One of Commissioner Rabon’s biggest challenges will be the same challenge facing fish and wildlife leaders all across the nation. Hunting and fishing license sales are the lifeblood of funding for those agencies. They face decreasing license sales for many reasons.

Hunting and fishing are seeing a major exodus of older participants whose ages no longer allow them to participate. Gone are the days when a knock on a door would get you permission to hunt and fish. Many landowners put a value on those opportunities, and many hunters and fishermen feel they have been priced out of those endeavors.

Many fishermen have fallen for the industry’s marketing tactics that if you don’t have a $75,000 bass boat and $400 rods and reels that you are not a real angler. Many fishermen who only fished for bream and crappie on weekends now say the traffic of boats and personal watercraft is taking the fun out of it for them.

Unlike decades past, many youth now come from single-parent homes where there is no one to introduce them to hunting or fishing. Georgia is becoming less and less rural, making finding a place to hunt or fish virtually impossible for some. And as Georgia’s population continues to shift, there are those who try to shame people with their beliefs that hunting is a hobby whose time has passed.

Commissioner Rabon says it is imperative that those in wildlife and fisheries professions become creative to stop the slide.

“It’s a problem, but we have initiatives in place,” he said. “Our agency spends a lot of time and resources trying to maintain license sales. We are committed to do that. We want to preserve the outdoors for our kids, grandkids and their grandkids.

“We continue to include inner-city youth and explain to them how they can get involved.”

DNR has 10 trailers outfitted with fishing rods and tackle and offers fishing for youth on small bodies of water like state parks and other local parks. Those fishing opportunities draw thousands of kids each year and hopefully will lead to future license sales.

Wildlife Law Enforcement Officers and other personnel visit schools across the state and tell students about Georgia’s hunting and fishing and other outdoor pursuits in hopes it will eventually spark an interest in the outdoors, ultimately leading to additional license sales.

Commissioner Rabon says it is also important that the non-hunters and fishermen support what they do.

“All week long, bird watchers, paddlers and others enjoy what we protect all week long,” he said. “We answer calls and go out and encourage outdoor wildlife observation. We explain what feeders attract what. We tell people how to deal with nuisance raccoons and opossums. We get a number of bear calls and educate people on that. We explain how deer hunting is used to control the population.”

He said it is important that DNR keeps its finger on the pulse of what hunters and anglers want. Then a balance must be found for what is best for the resource. He says surveys go a long way toward providing that information.

Recently, Georgia DNR asked hunters for their input on how many deer they would like to see in Georgia. Do they want more deer or trophy deer?

“We routinely survey hunters to see if they are happy with the regulations,” he said. “We are currently working on our statewide Deer Management Plan and what hunters want is getting careful consideration.

“It is important to stay attuned to what hunters want, but there are other factors. In southeast and southwest Georgia, deer eat the crops that farmers grow and detract from their bottom line,” he said. “We will continue to engage everyone—farmers, hunters, outdoor enthusiasts and other stakeholders—as we do what we’re charged to do in managing our state’s natural resources.”

Commissioner Rabon said he is blessed to have a family that supports him in the long hours needed to do his job.

“First of all, I have a lovely wife, Kathie, who supports what I do,” he said. “I have three adult sons. They all enjoy the outdoors.

“I have six grandchildren, all under the age of three. Three of them already have Georgia Lifetime Sportsman’s Licenses. The other three will soon.”

DNR Deputy Commissioner Trevor Santos and his daughter Elizabeth after a successful hunt on Dec. 30 in Barrow County. This was Elizabeth’s first time deer hunting with her dad, and she was four years old.

Deputy Commissioner
Trevor Santos

Of the three new leaders at DNR, Santos is the newest to the Department. He was appointed to serve as deputy commissioner of DNR in October 2023, overseeing the Department’s public and governmental affairs, marketing and communications, grants and real estate office. He’s no stranger to promoting the rights of hunters and those who own and use firearms.

Before joining DNR, Santos worked for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, leading NSSF’s efforts throughout the Southeast, focusing on legislation and regulations affecting the firearms, hunting and shooting sports industries.

Of the three new leaders, he is the only one who is not a Georgia native, but he has close ties, with his mother’s family having deep roots in southwest Georgia.

The 36-year-old knew all along that Georgia is where he needed to be.

“While I grew up in Tampa, Florida, it was Georgia where my love for the outdoors started and continued to grow—riding 4-wheelers, learning to shoot shotguns and rifles and being introduced to hunting. I was fortunate to have an uncle who took me under his wing and taught me to love and respect the land. Growing up, it was a treat to go to Georgia to visit family throughout the year, particularly during Thanksgiving and Christmas, as those were the times I was able to go deer hunting.

“After seven years of living and working in Washington, D.C., we escaped in 2017 heading back south to Georgia near Athens where my wife grew up. Being here has allowed me to spend more time in the woods.”

Trevor and his wife, Rachel, welcomed their first child, a girl named Elizabeth, in 2019, and a second child, their son, William, last year.

“My daughter showed an interest in hunting very early on, which was surprising to me. This past season, I took her out for her first dove, deer and quail hunts. She really seemed to enjoy it, and I look forward to taking her hunting more in the future. Those are memories I will cherish forever.”

Deputy Commissioner Santos says it is critical that DNR educates and recruits new hunters. He said last year the state received about $35 million from Pittman-Roberson funds, which is a federal excise tax levied on firearms, ammunition and archery equipment that goes back to state wildlife agencies in support of conservation efforts, hunter education programs and shooting ranges.

“There’s no doubt that hunting and firearm ownership is a tradition here in Georgia, but it’s also part of what our country was founded on,” he said. “As a department, we are constantly thinking about new ways to recruit new hunters and recreational shooters. We have numerous programs in place, and we offer opportunities around the state with our 47 public shooting ranges.”

With well over a million hunters and fishermen of all sorts in Georgia, all have their own ideas of how leaders such as Santos should be doing that. He says it is a big challenge.

“That is one of those reasons we do surveys and gather public input,” he says. “While we utilize the best scientific data and information gathered by our biologists and other wildlife professionals, we also want to hear from the public, our sportsmen and women, giving them a voice in the process.”

One of Santos’s biggest responsibilities during the first few months of the year is monitoring bills before the Georgia Legislature that have the potential to affect the Department of Natural Resources, wildlife and outdoorsmen and women. Legislators have the ability to be either friend or foe.

“We carefully study bills that can have an impact on wildlife, habitat, and the end user,” he said. “That’s not just hunters and anglers. It includes paddlers, bird watchers, hikers, everyone. We pride ourselves in being a resource for elected officials—educating and providing information on a host of issues. We want to see what’s best for the wildlife and those who call Georgia home. We’re blessed to have legislative leaders, including our governor, speaker of house and the lieutenant governor, who share a passion for the outdoors and support our agency.”

Deputy Commissioner Thomas Barnard with a gobbler he took in Clay County on April 16 last season.

Deputy Commissioner
Thomas Barnard

Deputy Commissioner Barnard brings more than 30 years of experience with DNR’s Law Enforcement Division to his new job. Until his appointment to his new position in September 2023, he most recently served as Colonel and the LE Division Director, a role in which he managed a budget of $32 million and oversaw 240 sworn officers and 24 other employees.

In his new role, Barnard manages the day-to-day operations of the department’s four divisions. But having this vast amount of responsibility is nothing new for him. Throughout his career, he has supervised DNR’s Statewide Uniform Patrol Operations, the Investigative Unit, Aviation Unit, Office of Professional Standards, PEER Support Unit and the Chaplain Program. During his tenure as LE Director, he streamlined statewide operations by reducing seven region offices to six, improving operating cost and increased uniform patrol operations. He revamped the entire recruitment and hiring process to develop racial, ethnic and gender diversity within the workforce. He implemented a change in educational hiring requirements and succession training program to grow and prepare employees for the next promotional opportunity.

“I was introduced to the outdoors by my father at age seven when I was able to squirrel hunt and fish for trout,” he said. “I liked being outside, and today I like fishing for anything that bites a hook, from our mountains to the coast. I also enjoy hunting deer and turkey, with turkey hunting as my favorite. I introduced my daughter to fishing at three years old, catching her first fish, a Lake Oconee crappie. Today my 26-year-old daughter and I continue to plan and take fishing trips, enjoying those moments and reflecting on our time together while sharing God’s creation.

“While the job is demanding and finding time to pursue those favorite outdoor activities can be challenging, the work that we do is also fulfilling. It is truly an honor to work for the men and women of DNR. The great work they do across this great state on behalf of our citizens and visitors is truly amazing. They sacrifice each day, personally and professionally, to protect and conserve our natural resources for future generations, what a calling, and I am so glad they answered it.”

The 54-year-old deputy commissioner also says he believes it is important to not just make decisions based on his own perception of what Georgia’s outdoors should be but to consider the input of all Georgia outdoor lovers.

“Any time there is an issue, people look through their own lens based on many factors, and those lenses are different,” he said. “All of their opinions matter. It is important that we get that input from all different levels.”

While Georgia hunters and fishermen might just be learning of DNR’s leadership team, there is certainly optimism for a bright and growing future with the new players on our leadership team.

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