HOUGHTON - Michigan Department of Natural Resources director Rebecca Humphries has led a wave of officials and Natural Resources Comissioners north to the Upper Peninsula this month.
By the time they come back for next year's meeting, their organization is likely to be significantly different.
The DNR and Department of Environmental Quality, split into two units in 1995 by executive order of then-Gov. John Engler, were merged Thursday as part of a cost-cutting executive order by Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Michigan DNR director Rebecca Humphries discusses the merger between her department and the state Department of Environmental Quality during a visit to The Daily Mining Gazette's Houghton offices Wednesday morning. (DMG photo by Michael H. Babcock)
Despite the state's well-publicized budget woes, scheduling an NRC meeting in and visiting the U.P. are important priorities for her department.
"Natural resources are too important to the people of the U.P. and they deserve to have a meeting in the peninsula once a year," she said.
Humphries visited The Daily Mining Gazette offices in Houghton Wednesday on her way to Ontonagon as part of a four-day trip across the U.P.
To minimize the budgetary impact, division chiefs without action items on Thursday's agenda stayed home and reports were given by more locally-based representatives.
Even with the merger into what will be called the Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Humphries said additional cuts in the DNR's executive division will have to be made, but that those were expected and prepared for.
She said it's too early to determine if the merge will lead to increasingly localized control of management functions. When the final decision to merge the two is made, an umbrella framework of what the new agency will look like will be established and plans will form from there.
The Department of Agriculture may also be merged with the two in the future.
There have been cuts in the DNR budget every year since 2000 - before Humphries took over as director. The annual crunch is always tough, but expecting the situation to get worse before it gets better has helped the organization be better-prepared.
"We're way past cutting out the fluff," she said.
A bill cancelling a proposed plan to devolve wetlands regulation to the federal government passed the state House and Senate earlier this month. Humphries said the state should provide the closer-to-home regulation its residents deserve and should avoid putting another step in the process when the state is already a leader in pro-active wetlands management.
"I'd hate to see us take a step backwards in that direction," she said.
The Western U.P. Citizens Advisory Council met last week in Mohawk and reported at Thursday's meeting. Humphries said changes to the DNR's public relations strategy made to address sportsmen's concerns over previous budget processes have improved a relationship she admitted had become strained.
"We had still relied on old methods to talk to our publics and those methods weren't working for us," she said.
The anticipated, then non-existent, shortfall at the end of 2007 led the DNR to propose large and unpopular hikes in license fees.
No such increases are on the table currently, but Humphries said, as the DNR's structure is re-evaluated, she supports devolving some authority to the Natural Resources Commission to establish limited and incremental fee increases with 'clear sideboards,' instead of the current system in which the legislature does large increases to address 'feast and famine' conditions.
One recently established change in wildlife regulations is taking effect in the woods at present: the expansion of crossbow hunting to anyone 50 years or older during archery season and for any hunter during firearm season.
DNR officials said the number of crossbow permits sought exceeds their projects, a statistic that Humphries is pleased about.
"It's fun to see activities, especially outdoor recreational activities, that people are excited about and anticipating," she said.
Another idea proposed to increase participation is the modification of firearm deer season from the traditional Nov. 15 start date to a floating mid-November Saturday that would allow for three weekends of hunting.
Humphries said moving the date is a '50/50 issue,' but that moving the date too early could cut into peak breeding activity, especially in the U.P. Though license sales go up for Saturday openers, Humphries said tourism expenditures are at their lowest on Saturday openers.
This year, Nov. 15 falls on a Sunday. Humphries said a final decision will be made by the end of 2009 to allow hunters to plan accordingly for 2010.
"We have a long tradition, but I do think our publics are changing," she said.
Brandon Veale can be reached at email@example.com.