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Legislators to have final say on proposed merger of ag and environmental departments

Jerry Oster, WNAX & KBHB News Staff - November 24, 2020

PIERRE, SD - Governor Kristi Noem has moved to merge the Department of Environment and Natural Resources into the Department of Agriculture.  While there are some synergies to be gained from the move, the elephant in the room is the DENR’s role as watchdog in protecting the landscape and resources for all South Dakotans.

The DENR whose job – in part – is to draft policy, regulate and monitor agricultural industries impact on water, wildlife, air and land contamination and any adverse economic and health impacts to municipalities and the general public, has some opposing the proposed merger.

Legislators will have the final say on the proposal.

Senator V.J. Smith of Brookings is the incoming Chairman of the Ag and Natural Resources Committee and says he is neutral on the idea so far. “There will be the pros and the cons as we hear it in committee and then weigh in,” says Smith.  “Originally there wasn’t much conversation about cost-savings but now I’m hearing that there will be some cost savings.” He adds, “Obviously, environmental groups will be quite concerned about having the two departments combined and we need to hear from those people.  I’m looking forward to that conversation.”

New laws in the past couple of years have streamlined the county application process for confined animal feeding operations, (CAFO). That has created some strong reactions from supporters and opponents of those projects.

Dakota Rural Action (DRA) Chair and Winner area rancher John Harter says they question if the merged agency will have the proper experts in place to handle all the duties of both agencies.

“I think one of the big questions is will we have an expert in each of these areas, running the merged agencies,” says Harter.  “Environmental and natural resources is a very different expertise than what is required in an ag department, although there are some cross-overs.”

He says another concern is that the Environment and Natural Resources Department needs to be a watchdog agency.

“You know, the water board is connected in there along with other permitting agencies. They all need to be on board to serve as the watchdog for and by the people and not be a rubber stamp committee for these corporations,” observes Harter. “Our water is our most precious natural resource that we have. We need that managed at a top-notch level.”

Harter says there also must be more public input into this merger decision.

Smith says those issues will probably be before the committee again. “I need to hear from both groups as to why we need to do whatever.  I think people want that kind of legislator who will sit and listen to both the pros and cons of any issue.”

Smith says they have a number of experts available to help them make decisions. “There are some extremely bright people who lobby in Pierre – for all entities.  And also you have colleagues who are involved in farming and ranching.  You listen and come to a decision. I’m neutral until I hear the pros and cons.”

Hunter Roberts, the current Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, is serving as  interim Secretary of Agriculture, following the resignation of former Ag Secretary Kim Vanneman in May of this year, while continuing to also lead the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Based on a South Dakota News Watch analysis of surrounding states, South Dakota would become the only state in the Great Plains region that does not separate its environmental protection agency from its department of agriculture.

The South Dakota constitution requires Noem to submit an executive order outlining the merger to the Legislature within five days of the start of the 2021 legislative session on Jan. 12. Legislators would then have the opportunity to pass a resolution disapproving the merger. If no such resolution is passed within 90 days, the merger would go into effect.

Governor Kristi Noem will outline her budget proposal to the legislature next month. The 2021 session starts on January 12th.

Phone number: 605-347-4455
E-mail: [email protected]
Address: 1612 Junction Avenue, Suite #1
Sturgis, SD 57785