Noem creates Dept. of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Noem creates Dept. of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Katelyn Winberg, Reporter (She/Her)

Gov. Kristi Noem signed an executive order Jan. 12 to merge the Department of Agriculture (SDDA) and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

Hunter Roberts, the intended head of the new Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources (DANR), says the move was made to consolidate resources and reduce costs for taxpayers.

“The merged department will continue all existing duties and implement all the programs the two departments had in the past,” Roberts said.  “Agriculture, conservation and natural resource protection go hand-in-hand, so it makes sense for South Dakota to regulate these industries under one department.”

Roberts also points out that although one cabinet secretary position has been cut, the hole will be filled by Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden as he acts as an ambassador for agriculture and a liaison between commodity groups and the governor’s executive team.

The decision has split the agricultural community. While many organizations have remained neutral, two major factions have arisen in opposition and defense.

The South Dakota Farm Bureau has endorsed the measure. Although President Scott VanderWal admits that much of their organization’s board were initially skeptical, they were eventually swayed by a visit from Roberts and Rhoden where they presented their argument.

“The governor is on the right track with trying to cut back on some expenses and streamline the department,” VanderWal said.

VanderWal claimed that the state will save about $450,000 as a result of this merger.

In regard to streamlining the department, VanderWal says that efficiencies like combining regulators will help producers, specifically dairy farmers. Currently the SDDA inspects dairy facilities while the DENR takes care of the different management plans. The merger will help simplify the “red tape” that producers have to go through.

However, South Dakota’s largest agricultural organization, the South Dakota Farmers Union, has opposed the measure, stating that it was their members who voted against endorsement, not their board.

“In reality, the environment and the number one industry, agriculture, are the last places we should think about saving money,” Doug Sombke, president of the union, said.

Sombke also said that the only other states to do a similar merge are Alaska and Rhode Island, two states that don’t have heavy agriculture industries. His fear is that agricultural and environmental issues have a potential for conflict with a smaller workforce.

Environmental groups have also weighed in on the issue.

One in particular is the South Dakota Wildlife Federation, the state’s oldest conservation organization. Executive Director Chris Hesla claims that although it is important for the SDDA and the DENR to work closely together, agriculture is only a small part of the latter’s job.

“The DENR regulates mining, clean water in the Black Hills, uranium mining in southwest South Dakota and tracks the daily loads of pollutants that go into our water,” Hesla said.

Many environmental groups, including the South Dakota Wildlife Federation, are pushing for state lawmakers to block the governor’s executive order.

The measure goes into effect April 12, 2021.