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DNR Board: Team Players Only?

February 7, 2012

Georgians and southerners have long claimed a bond with the land.  This might lead one to think that our elected and appointed leaders would treat our natural resources more responsibly.  That may have been the case in our region’s history but it’s looking like those days are long past.  The Georgia Board of Natural Resources is one example that editors, columnists and reporters from all over the state have covered in great detail.

The Past: Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Georgia’s elected and agency leadership cultivated relationships with conservation and academic professionals.  In the days before the Board of Natural Resources, the Georgia Legislature established the Georgia Natural Areas Council in 1966 “for the purpose of surveying the state to identity the remaining outstanding plant and animal habitats, rare or valuable members of such communities and areas of scenic or geologic importance.”  The Council possessed no regulatory or management authority of natural resources, but served primarily in an advisory capacity to the state.   Within the first year of operation, the Council registered ten Natural Areas, proposed fifty-eight others, and identified over 1,300 potential candidates.  Why care about the Georgia Natural Areas Council?  It was guided by nine professional experts: four from state resource agencies plus four university science departments.

The Present: The eighteen appointed members of the Board of Natural Resources are “responsible for setting rules and regulations ranging from air and water quality to hunting seasons” that affect all Department of Natural Resources (DNR) divisions (Coastal Resources, Historic Preservation, State Parks, and Wildlife Resources) and the Environmental Protection Division.  The Board also “provides input into issues such as the [DNR’s] budget recommendations and legislative initiatives.”  Today’s Board has shifted in a dramatic direction from the past.

Metro Atlanta – the place where the majority of Georgians live and the region that consumes the most resources – has ten voices at the board’s table.  One might argue that it makes sense for city folks – a key target user-group of DNR’s recreational resources – to advise the department’s management of the state’s parks, forests, historic sites, and wildlife.  A closer look at the members reveals other interlocked interests at play: residential and commercial real estate development; industrial operations; financial services; and utility operators.  And they all represent a very, very thirsty part of the state that has slipped into the economic doldrums.

What other interests are served by the Board of Natural Resources?  Poultry has three or four friends from northeast Georgia.  Forestry has three or four friends spread around the state.  Traditional agriculture and urban agriculture have a few seats at the table.  And when it comes to other major metro areas, Augusta and Savannah have direct representation on the board.

So what’s missing?  Lots.

First, the geography: In terms of population, a wide band stretching from Columbus through Macon and onwards to Athens is arguably under-represented.  In terms of industry: it’s surprising that the mineral extraction industry has no obvious voice at the table.

Second, and more important: The Board is poised to resemble an echo chamber that will, according to former board member Warren Budd,  lack “a diversity of opinion.”  There appears to be no balance between economic development and natural resources management.  According to long-time Georgia political watcher Tom Crawford, one could look at this board’s composition and say the body looks like an economic development foundation.  And herein lies the tragic turn the Board has taken in the last decade.

Over the course of two gubernatorial administrations, the Board has shed progressive and conservative greens.  The most recent axe fell on Budd, a downstream Republican hunting and fishing “conservation conservative” from Newnan.  Budd’s offence?  He openly criticized plans to build more reservoirs and EPD’s failure to do their job on the Ogeechee River.  After seven years on the Board, Budd was set to assume the chairmanship in 2012.  Instead his diversity of opinion was squelched; he got a thank-you-for-your-service resolution and a plaque in January.

And if Budd’s removal from the Board was not a clear message to existing and new members, the Governor’s spokesman Brian Robinson provided clear marching orders: “If anyone on any board considers himself indispensable, this is what educators call a ‘teachable moment.’ It takes an eyebrow-raising amount of self-regard for someone to suggest publicly that, out of 10 million Georgians, only he or she brings a diverse viewpoint to a board.”

The Future: Georgia’s last two Governors have successfully removed representatives of the scientific, academic, and conservation communities and the Board has been re-populated with “developers, real estate interests and business people” plus lawyers and lobbyists who have taken over environmental decision-making in Georgia.  These Board representatives make it difficult for the Department of Natural Resources and its divisions to adequately do their jobs protecting cultural and environmental resources for today’s and tomorrow’s Georgians.

-Chris Manganiello

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