End of the Illinois Conservation Foundation feels overdue
BY DALE BOWMAN For Sun-Times Media March 1, 2014 12:12AM
Updated: April 3, 2014 6:59AM
I have never been a fan of the Illinois Conservation Foundation.
Very simply, I am leery of any deliberate mixing of the public and the private, as with the ICF, when it comes to raising money, especially in a state with the political history of Illinois. There’s something inherently combustible when money swirls around decision-makers. That’s true even if that money is used for laudable purposes — say, getting kids outdoors (give a teary eye).
But the time is now to consider whether to dissolve the ICF.
Actually, I’ve thought that point was reached years ago, back several steps in incompetence and impropriety.
The breaking point came for me with the forced resignation of Travis Loyd, the deputy director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. IDNR director Marc Miller had just asked him to take over as executive director of the ICF as a money-saving move.
That move was not unprecedented, having IDNR staff work with the ICF. Actually, heading the ICF might have been a perfect role for somebody with the political skills of Loyd.
As much as the whole idea of an ICF, a public-private non-profit, gave me that squeamish feeling, it worked in the early years. There were a couple reasons for that. Their names were John Schmitt and Brent Manning. Schmitt was a professional fundraiser, and Manning, who would go on to have a Hall of Fame career as director of the IDNR, was a strong enough personality and political force to keep improprieties in check.
That was not as true after both moved on.
The ICF was born out of a recommendation from the first Conservation Congress. It was formally established by law in 1994.
The role of the ICF and its partners ‘‘is to preserve and enhance our precious natural resources by supporting and fostering ecological, educational, and recreational programs for the benefit of all citizens of Illinois and for future generations to come,’’ as outlined on its website.
That sounds wonderful, laudable.
The problem is that the natural evolution of any group is to survive, and by extension to take on a life of its own.
With the ICF, the tipping point came with the acceptance of the gift of the 750 acres near Pecatonica in Winnebago County in 2010. It became the Torstenson Family Youth Conservation Education Center.
As ideal and big a gift as the 750 acres of wild and wonderful habitat was, it was too big, too swank, for the ICF to handle.
That’s the bottom line.
Like many things, I think it is a problem born of hubris or overreach.
It was too much for the ICF and, by extension, for the IDNR.
One ICF executive director was sent packing. The slot stayed open for months, then was briefly filled by Loyd for a couple weeks. And now is open again. There’s conflict, even ill will, between the board and Miller.
I am not sure it is a solvable problem. Because I am not sure in what universe it is OK for the ICF and, by extension, the IDNR to have a property that looks like something an English Lord should own.
You can dress that in all the programs for kids you want (give a teary eye) and it still looks and feels extravagant when the basics of the IDNR are operating under serf-like conditions of staffing and funding.
That’s a bottom line.