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Rejoice about DNR Sustainability Bill — just realistically

The passage DNR Sustainability Bill opens possibilities for more extensive hiring replace depleted levels biologists conservatipolice officers. | Dale Bowman~For

The passage of the DNR Sustainability Bill opens possibilities for more extensive hiring to replace depleted levels of biologists and conservation police officers. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 3, 2013 6:24AM

Might have stretch the definition of ‘‘sustained.’’

But at least there’s long-term hope for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources after the Illinois Senate passed Senate Bill 1566, the DNR Sustainability Bill, 39-11 on Wednesday. Gov. Pat Quinn, who backed the bill and has given assurances that the funds will be used as indicated, will sign it.

IDNR director Marc Miller sounded almost giddy Wednesday, but also realistic, both about the short term and long term.

‘‘It will take nine to 12 months to get many of these revenues in the door,’’ he said. ‘‘There are a lot of things we have do to get the authority. It won’t be an instantaneous, miraculous dump of 33 million dollars into our laps.’’

The passage of the bill marked a year’s worth of work by House Deputy Majority Leader Frank Mautino (D-Spring Valley) building consensus among conservation and sportsmen’s groups, figuring out a multitude of revenue streams, then finding bipartisan support. The key stream is a $2 surcharge on vehicle registrations, which ‘‘shall be deposited into the Park and Conservation Fund for the Department of Natural Resources to use for conservation efforts.’’

The bill passed the Illinois House in the regular session but failed in the closing minutes to pass the Senate. But State Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D-Chicago Heights) shepherded it through the Senate in the veto session.

‘‘With new, sustainable funding, the professionals at IDNR will continue to do their critical work, and us and future generations to enjoy Illinois’ great outdoors,’’ said Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club.

The IDNR is ready.

‘‘We have been working all fall on the nuts and bolts of getting revenue streams ready,’’ Miller said.

There are formal processes to go through. In some cases, they will take close to a year. Some rules need to be submitted to the legislative Joint Committee on Administrative Rules for approval.

‘‘We get a little bit healthier, but we are not completely out of the woods,’’ Miller said.

He’s right about that. I would’ve liked the bill to go far enough to completely wean the IDNR from general revenue funds. In the last decade, the IDNR’s budget has been slashed from $100 million to less than $50 million.

Miller is aware of the intense pressures on Illinois’ public funding, especially the colossus of state pensions.

‘‘We still have to be vigilant and fix these larger issues or we will be right back here in three or four years,’’ he said.

The IDNR has larger issues, too, not the least of which is staffing. Remaining staff, decimated as they are, are aging, especially biologists and engineers.

‘‘That’s part of our challenge . . . we could lose almost 300 people in the next year,’’ Miller said. ‘‘We need 300 people to replace them and another 100 to 200 to 300 people to replace the people we need to do the things we are mandated to do.

‘‘It is not going to be a miraculous recovery. We have to figure out how to hire, optimally, 600 people in the next year or two.’’

Not the least of those hires will be conservation police officers, difficult to replace quickly because of their extended training: basic state police training followed by long CPO training.

There is a lot to do. It will take time.

But, for a change, we have something hopeful related to conservation in Illinois.

‘‘Today was an amazing victory for conservation,’’ Miller said. ‘‘I need to take a breath.’’

We may all cautiously exhale.

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