South Dakota farmers, ranchers and environmental groups are expressing concerns over the proposed merger announced by Gov. Kristi Noem (R), which would combine the Department of Agriculture and Department of Environment and Natural Resources into a single agency.
The merger was announced last month and the new combined agency will be called the South Dakota Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources with Hunter Roberts leading the new department as of Sept. 8.
“I’ve worked in agriculture my entire life, and I am excited to lead this department,” said Secretary Roberts. “South Dakotans know that farmers and ranchers are the best conservationists, and this department will promote our No. 1 industry while we simultaneously protect our natural resources.”
Roberts is the current secretary of the Department Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), and Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden has been serving as interim secretary of the Department of Agriculture.
Roberts told KOTA-TV the combination would create a “one-stop spot for our environment and our agricultural groups” and will save the state money and provide better service. Combined, the new department would have roughly 405 employees and a budget of about $73.4 million without any cuts to the budget or personnel.
“Lieutenant Governor Rhoden has stepped up to guide the Department of Agriculture through this important transitional time period, and I really appreciate his hard work and leadership,” said Noem in a press release. “Agriculture is our No. 1 industry, and under Secretary Roberts’ leadership, this department will serve our producers better than ever before.”
According to an analysis by News Watch, “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.”
Scott VanderWal, president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau Federation, expressed concern that while the Noem administration has supported agriculture, there may be pushback from a future governor.
“Historically, there have been some issues that come up where the Department of Ag and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources have not met on the same side,” VanderWal said to News Watch. “Most of the concern would be that the ag department would turn more toward regulation, and maybe have a lack of understanding of what [farming] operations need.”
Dakota Rural Action, an environmental grassroots organization, stated it is clear that agriculture is the focus of the announcement. The group pointed out that the word “environment” has been removed from the new proposed department’s name, stating the DENR’s mission statement includes the language, “to protect public health and the environment by providing environmental monitoring and natural resource assessment…”
Also, Dakota Rural Action said it is unlikely the new department’s focus will be on public involvement issues, such as regulatory oversight and environmental regulations.
“Water is the most precious natural resource we have. Protection of the environment and promotion of agriculture are two distinct and important elements of life in South Dakota. Both elements deserve a department focused on their unique issues,” said John Harter, Dakota Rural Action chairperson from Winner, SD.
Before the plan is finalized, the South Dakota constitution requires Noem to submit an executive order outlining the Legislature merger within five days of the 2021 legislative session on Jan. 12. Legislators would then have the opportunity to pass a resolution disapproving of the merger. If no such resolution is passed within 90 days, the merger will go into effect. — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor