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Merger Of Agriculture-Environment Agencies Likely To Hurt Environment

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Based on everything I know; Hunter Roberts is a good guy and an able administrator.

He comes from a good family with long experience in state government (what some might call the Deep State gone local) and farming and ranching. He seems to be a smart, capable public servant. I like him.

I just don't think he should run both the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the state Department of Agriculture.

But then, I don't think anybody should. Because I don't think they should be one agency, as Gov. Kristi Noem has made them with an executive order.

She can do that, make no mistake about it. I just wish she hadn’t.

The combined agency is called the South Dakota Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Based on what I know, it will be the only combined state agriculture-environmental protection agency in the nation.

Almost all other states have a stand-alone environmental agency. A few have multiple environmental agencies. And the few others that don’t have a stand-alone environmental agency combine environmental functions with health or wildlife-hunting-fishing departments.

I believe South Dakota still needs and will in the future need a stand-alone environmental-protection agency. But if it is to combine environmental protection and regulation with another agency, it would make much better sense to combine them with our state Health Department or with the state Game, Fish & Parks Department.

Either would fit in more appropriately than agriculture with the environmental-protection mission of the agency and would likely provide a healthier environment in the future.

The proof is in the governor’s own quote

You have an indication where Noem’s priorities are in the first quote about the merger included in a news release sent out by her office today:

“With this merger, we are fostering sustainable agriculture and conservation that we can pass on to our kids and grandkids,” Noem says. “The merger will simplify life for South Dakota agriculture producers by creating a one-stop-shop in state government. It will also save taxpayers money by streamlining the state’s regulatory bodies, eliminating redundancies, and creating a better customer service experience for all.”

So, save money. One-stop-shop for producers. Simply their lives. Foster sustainable agriculture and conservation.

I'm glad she mentioned conservation. But where does it talk about protecting the environment for future generations? Where does it talk about how the merger will improve the environmental protection work now being done? Or making sure we leave a healthy, sustainable outdoor world for our kids and grandkids?

It doesn’t. And I have to suspect that’s because those crucial — to many of us, at least — values were not high on the list of priorities when Noem came up with this merger. They just don’t seem to be her kind of priorities.

And her priorities are or will soon become Hunter Roberts’ priorities, regardless of what his might have been otherwise.

This governor, who tends to see natural resources as commodities to be used for economic gain, is not one to allow agency heads much room to operate on their own. We’ve seen that in Game, Fish & Parks on some fairly high-profile issues and with a couple of high-profile departures.

I expect we’ll see a lot more of that control in the new Agriculture and Natural Resources Department. It will be closely monitored by Noem, a farmer with obvious and pronounced farm loyalties and ambitions for the industry.

And there’s nothing wrong with farm loyalties and ambitions, in their place, with balance for other important values. I used to see farm loyalties all the time when I was around the state Department of Agriculture and its staff in Pierre. Most staffers that I knew had farm-ranch backgrounds and farm-ranch affinities.

The differences I have seen between DENR and Ag staffers

Most of the DENR — remember that acronym, it might be coming back someday under a different governor — staffers I have known over the years were generally educated in engineering, typically with a water and/or environmental protection emphasis. Many were hunters and anglers, and were fully, energetically committed to protecting the environment they loved to enjoy in their free time.

Sure, some of the aggies liked to hunt and fish, too. But they had different priorities. Closer-to-Noem priorities.

I don’t see how this merger can work long term for the environment. I certainly can see it working just fine for agriculture, which I think is the dominant intent behind the merger. My fear is that the environmental effects of this imbalance will become clear over time.

But for now, the priorities are pretty clear. You could see that by reading the news release. Here’s a quote from Roberts:

“Gov. Noem has a tremendous vision for the next generation of agriculture, and we’re excited to see it through,” Roberts says. “I’m excited for the synergies this merger will create.”

I assume he’s also excited for the opportunities to make sure the environment is protected. I wish he’d said that.

Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden, a rancher from Union Center, joined in celebrating the merger with a quote that also includes nothing about how the merger will benefit environmental protection.

“Gov. Noem and I are the only farmer-rancher duo to be serving as governor and lieutenant governor,” Rhoden says. “We are excited for the potential this merger has to unleash the next generation of agriculture for our state. I look forward to continue working as an ambassador to the agricultural industry.”

Lots of ag stuff. No environment stuff.

In addition, South Dakota Farm Bureau President Scott VanderWal of Volga was given space for a comment in the news release:

“We believe this merger will work better for farmers and ranchers and strengthen the future of agriculture,” VanderWal said. “The agriculture industry is continually evolving, and thanks to Gov. Noem’s leadership, South Dakota continues to be on the leading edge of that evolution. There is no better time than now to solidify agriculture’s role in protecting the environment and natural resources while ensuring that our industry in South Dakota remains economically viable and growing.”

In the merger, the edge will go to agriculture

I’ve interviewed VanderWal a number of times. He seems like a solid, responsible guy and an excellent farmer. And I’m glad that he, at least, mentioned “protecting the environment and natural resources,” in a quote that was nonetheless focused on the future of agriculture and how “government can work better for farmers and ranchers.”

Noticeably missing from the news release were any glowing comments on the merger from wildlife or environmental interests. That’s understandable. What could they say? We like the idea of mixing the environmental-protection duties of DENR with the Department of Agriculture? Hardly.

The South Dakota Wildlife Federation is among the outdoor organizations that opposed the merger, saying most of the environmental protection duties of DENR have nothing to do with agriculture and already are understaffed. And those DENR functions that do involve regulating ag operations, the federation says, could be compromised by the merger.

“Now, when the two departments are combined it is very unlikely the general public will have any confidence in one division of the Department of Ag effectively investigating violations by agricultural operations,” SDWF President Zach Hunke said.

The South Dakota Farmers Union — which tends to lean Democratic just as the South Dakota Farm Bureau leans Republican — also opposes the merger.

“The current missions of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources stand independent of one another,” SDFU President Doug Sombke said. “Because of this, these departments serve as a valuable check and balance system for one another.”

Checks and balances are important. There was no sign of them in the governor’s news release, however. The release was weighted heavily toward the importance of serving the needs of agriculture, with little mention at all of sustaining our natural resources and protecting the environment.

What was in the news release, and what wasn’t, tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the real intent of this merger.