What comes to mind when you think about the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and its duties? (Let’s be civil, now.)
For some, the DNR only deals with fish and wildlife.
For others, it means state parks.
And for a few, everyone at the DNR is either a game warden or park ranger, every DNR property is a state park, and the agency should answer only to people who fish, hunt or trap because that’s who foots the bill.
To set the record straight: there are no park rangers or game wardens (they’ve been called Conservation Officers since 1939); State Parks are one of five distinct land management divisions; and state law tasks the DNR with managing fish and wildlife in a manner “that will serve the best interests of the resources and the people of Indiana” without limiting it to hunters and anglers.
The DNR is an incredibly diverse agency whose broad responsibilities are funded from multiple sources, not just hunting and fishing license sales. Gate and rental fees, various federal grants, timber sales, special permits, royalty fees, cigarette tax revenue, the state’s general tax fund, and donations also contribute to the cause.
The workforce includes fish and wildlife biologists, habitat experts, botanists, foresters, entomologists, archaeologists, engineers, landscape architects, researchers, accountants, plant and insect inspectors, program directors, interpretive naturalists, geologists, law enforcement officers, maintenance and grounds crews, attorneys, educators, communications specialists, historians, property managers, and a whole lot more.
Collectively, its mission is to “protect, enhance, preserve and wisely use natural, cultural, and recreational resources for the benefit of Indiana’s citizens through professional leadership, management, and education.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the DNR in its current structure. It was created in 1965 when the General Assembly passed the Natural Resources Act, combining into one agency the Department of Conservation, Flood Control & Water Resources Commission, State Soil & Water Conservation Committee, and Outdoor Recreation Council.
But the roots of conservation and resource management in Indiana run much deeper.
Some came before the Civil War.
In 1857, the General Assembly recognized the impacts of unregulated hunting and made it illegal to hunt white-tailed deer from Jan. 1 through Aug. 1. It was too little too late as deer were soon gone from the Indiana landscape.
The General Assembly established a commissioner of fisheries 1881 and eight years later rolled those duties into the Department of Fish & Game. The Board of Forestry and the position of State Forester were created in 1901.
As Indiana’s bicentennial approached in 1916, Col. Richard Lieber, a German immigrant, led a state committee that founded our state park system to celebrate the 100th year of statehood. McCormick’s Creek State Park was the first; Turkey Run was second.
Three years later, the Department of Conservation was created with Lieber as the first director.
Over time, the stewardship duties evolved and expanded, and today the DNR is divided into three distinct areas – recreation, regulation, and administration.
Recreation primarily falls within five landholding divisions that oversee more than 550 sites encompassing almost 535,000 acres available to the public. Depending on the property, activities include biking, boating, camping, cross-country skiing, disc golf, fishing, geocaching, golf, hiking, hunting, mountain biking, off-roading, outdoor education and interpretation, picnicking, sledding, snowmobiling, swimming, target shooting, and wildlife watching.
Fish & Wildlife manages about two dozen fish and wildlife areas and dozens of other satellite properties that are managed specifically for fishing and hunting related activities and paid for solely by anglers, hunters and trappers
State Parks oversees 32 properties that focus on camping, hiking, boating, and wildlife watching. Col. Lieber established a user pay/user benefit business model at the outset, and it continues today with about 65-70 percent of its budget covered by gate fees and campsite rentals.
The Forestry Division has the longest history and manages some of the single largest properties in the DNR inventory. Forest management is a primary purpose, but they are becoming increasingly popular for camping, fishing, hunting, and hiking.
Outdoor Recreation is a mix of land management and recreational planning support for other DNR divisions and local governments. Its land units represent extremes – Interlake off-road vehicle riding area to the Knobstone Trail, Indiana’s longest and most rugged hiking path at 58 miles.
Nature Preserves owns properties both inside and outside of other landholding divisions. Established in 1967, it provides the greatest level of protection for natural areas that represent “living museums” of Indiana’s original natural character.
In future columns, we’ll dig deeper into the work of the DNR, including the regulatory divisions.