Wild times at Capitol bad news for wildlife

Springfield – Conservation and hunting groups spent days
rallying lawmakers and the governor, hoping for a veto of Senate
Bill 790, which would “sweep” money dedicated to hunting and
fishing funds.

But on Oct. 8, Blagojevich signed the bill, which authorizes
taking $221 million from special state accounts that get their
money from permit and license fees and are set aside for specific
programs. The funds reportedly include $5 million from the Wildlife
and Fish Fund, $2 million from the Illinois Habitat Endowment Trust
Fund, and $1 million from the Illinois Habitat Fund.

The sportsmen’s funds are used annually to improve wildlife
habitat and provide services to hunters and fishermen around the
state. The legality of sweeping the money is being questioned by
many.

“Diversion of the funds in these accounts is prohibited by the
Federal Wildlife Restoration Act and Sport Fish Restoration Act and
would result in the loss of $15 million a year in federal aid to
DNR,” Aaron Kuehl, Illinois conservation director for Pheasants
Forever, said. “As a hunter or angler in this state, there should
be no higher priority than restoring the cuts to these funds.”

Originally, the governor’s office said the funds would be used
to keep state parks open. As Illinois Outdoor News went to press,
it was not clear that the funds swept through the new law will even
be able to keep the parks open.

Members of Pheasants Forever, the National Wild Turkey
Federation, Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl, the Illinois Audubon
Society and others had been urging the governor to look for
alternate ways to fund parks.

The Blagojevich administration admitted after the bill was
signed that more than $50 million of the $221 million lawmakers
want diverted may be untouchable. The governor then said that
Comptroller Dan Hynes should decide how much is available.

Hynes’ office responded that the governor is wrong and that
Hynes is obligated by law to transfer the entire amount.

But as of Oct. 9, Blagojevich still hadn’t signed a companion
bill that authorizes spending the money that was swept. And even if
he does sign it, the administration is not obligated to spend
it.

“It isn’t a guarantee he won’t close parks and lay off these
people,” Rep. Gary Hannig, of Litchfield, told the Associated
Press.

The ongoing battle has divided outdoors enthusiasts.

State park supporters and hunting and fishing supporters also
belong to conservation groups.

“Funding sources shouldn’t be coming from other dedicated
groups,” Tom Clay, executive director for the Illinois Audubon
Society, said.

Clay said they all support conservation, and many now find
themselves in both camps. It’s not easy to say which is right, but
“You shouldn’t have to be using habitat money to keep the state
parks open,” Clay said.

The governor’s office has a number of concerns with the
legislation the General Assembly has passed, Brian Williamsen, the
governor’s Springfield press secretary, said.

“A lot of it is money that simply can’t be used,” he said. “It’s
too early to say what, if anything, can be used.”

Under the Illinois Constitution, the governor can wait as late
as Dec. 5 to act on the spending bill.

Meanwhile, DNR has sent letters to vendors in state parks
detailing what will happen if the parks close as planned come Nov.
30.

State Sen. Tim Bivins, R-Dixon, said he knew of one party that
has been officially notified of the impending closings.

“At least one vendor at Wolf Creek State Park in southern
Illinois received an Oct. 2 notice from the Department of Natural
Resources that the park would be closing,” Bivins said Oct. 7.

DNR spokesman Chris McCloud said the agency still doesn’t know
exactly what will happen.

Amidst all the confusion and uncertainty, conservation groups
must take a “wait and see” attitude. There is hope the federal
government will step in and block some of the money-grab.

“The federal government can’t do anything until the bill is
signed into law,” Kuehl said a day before the governor signed the
bill. “At that point, the feds will hopefully step in.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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