DNR gets feedback at its ‘town hall’ meeting

Midland, Mich. – “We’ve tightened our belt and tightened our
belt,” said Director Rebecca Humphries of the Department of Natural
Resources she heads. “And now, we need a new belt.”

Humphries was asking about 60 participants in a Conservation
Town Hall – the second of five to be held throughout Michigan – to
provide input on what the DNR’s new belt should enwrap.

“It’s no secret that the economy is tough right now,” Humphries
said. “But even in good times, we have to make sure that our
efforts are focused where they should be. We want you to tell us
what we need to do better, what we’re doing well now, maybe what we
don’t need to be doing.”

Many of the meeting participants expected a traditional meeting,
in which they’d make their opinions known and ask questions of
officials. What they experienced was a bit different than that – a
“structured discussion” in which teams of participants helped raise
the issues with which the DNR should be concerned.

Directed by facilitator Ann Nieuwenhuis, of the Michigan State
University Extension Service, about eight participants at each of
eight tables determined who among them would be facilitator,
note-taker, and referee, then began working with broad concepts of
DNR responsibility, using multi-colored pinwheels to assign
relative importance to land and aquatic management, outdoor
recreation, information and education, and laws and
regulations.

Next, each group was asked to go from one category to the next,
listing issues they saw as important within it – including, at the
Midland meeting, deer management, state park fees, fish
conservation measures, selective and clear-cut forest harvests, and
horse enthusiast use of state lands and campgrounds – the last a
key concern of a large contingent of riders. “We’re not here to
debate the issues,” Nieuwenhuis told and then reminded
participants. “We’re here to find out what all the issues are.”

A reporter from each group shared its findings with the entire
audience, and an overall list was compiled.

Each group was then asked to reply to a couple of questions,
prepared by DNR division chiefs, focused on the area they had
originally ranked as most important.

As they exited, participants were asked to indicate with their
initials, from all the group lists posted on a wall, the single
issue they thought most critical.

Before that, though, they had an opportunity to seek answers
instead of simply providing input; a DNR official took a chair at
each table, with participants invited to move about and discuss
individual questions and viewpoints in more detail. Available at
the Midland meeting were the chiefs of each of the DNR’s divisions:
Frank Wheatlake of the Natural Resources Commission, which oversees
DNR policies and programs, and several staffers from the DNR’s
Office of Communications.

And how did participants react to the process? Reviews were
mixed.

Glenn Duncan, a Bay City sporting goods store owner, said, “We
need to get more discussion (on funding) started, and this was a
good way to start.”

Dave Smethurst, of Gaylord called the process “a good
broad-brush effort,” adding that he thought “a lot of people came
to talk about their individual issues.”

That was the case with Frank Krist, of Rogers City, who said,
“They didn’t give us enough opportunity to really discuss the
issues well,” adding that he particularly wanted to lobby for more
Great Lakes fishery work. He said he would have preferred a more
conventional question-and-answer format.

“I thought it was good,” said Dirk Kleinhardt, of Clare. “It
worked out. You have to have some structure, some control, but
overall I think some meaningful things came from it.”

Information did flow in both directions.

Humphries told the gathering that Michigan’s General Fund
provides just 4 percent of the DNR budget, while 18 percent comes
from the federal government, particularly from excise taxes levied
on outdoor equipment; and 78 percent from licenses, stickers, fees,
and other charges to users of the resources, primarily hunters,
anglers, boaters, and campers.

“That means that three-fourths of our budget comes from you,”
she told attendees.

As costs have risen, hunter and angler numbers have remained
stable or declined slightly. The result is pressure to cut
programs, increase revenue, or both.

A DNR proposal to increase license fees a couple years ago
failed. From hunters and anglers, Humphries said in a brief
interview, “we heard loud and clear that if we were asking to raise
fees or make cuts, they wanted to be part of it.”

That’s what gave rise to the Conservation Town Hall
meetings.

Another license increase package is “not in the works,”
Humphries said. “The Legislature has made it clear that we will
have to find a way to broaden the base so more users pay in, before
we seek more from our (hunter, angler and other traditional)
users.”

Once all five meetings are complete (April 20) information
collected through them will be assembled into one document that can
help guide the DNR in setting priorities and designing programs.
Information will be posted at www.michigan.gov/dnrtownhallfeedback.

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