Hunter Roberts

Hunter Roberts

Critics of Gov. Kristi Noem’s plan to merge the South Dakota State Department of Agriculture with the state’s Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR) have expressed concern that the state’s biggest industry will take priority over protecting the state’s air, land and water.

During a virtual water conference Oct. 14, DENR officials addressed the frequent questions they get about the merger of the two departments, including plans to drop “environment” from the name of the combined department, to be called the South Dakota Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Speaking at the Eastern South Dakota Water Conference via Zoom, DENR director of public affairs Brian Walsh said there were several names considered for the new department, and dropping “environment” from the name doesn’t change their duties.

“Ultimately, what’s is important is what we do in those agencies,” he said. “Our responsibilities really remain the same. We’ll just be doing them together.”

The merger came unexpectedly, he said, announced by DENR director Hunter Roberts at a leadership meeting in late August. Roberts will lead the new department and in the meantime is serving as interim secretary of agriculture.

Noem is expected to issue an executive order to merge the DENR with the ag department in January. It will become effective 90 days afterward. That would make the South Dakota Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources an official entity sometime in April 2021.

Walsh said combining the departments makes a lot of sense. Environmental experts from each department will be working together to find solutions that work for everyone, he said.

“Long term, customers will have a one-stop shop for their regulatory, conservation and environmental funding needs,” Walsh said.

Staff is currently working out an organizational structure and a budget for the combined department. Already, DENR’s watershed protection program as merged with the ag department’s resource conservation forestry division with Bill Smith from the ag department serving as director of the new division.

Janelle is editor of the Tri-State Neighbor, covering South Dakota, southwestern Minnesota, northwestern Iowa and northeastern Nebraska. Reach her at jatyeo@tristateneighbor.com or follow on Twitter @JLNeighbor