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Noem Plans to Bury SD Environmental Agency in Pro-Corporate Ag Department

While Kristi didn’t get her VP nod, she did score a coup here at home by getting rid of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

South Dakota’s environmental regulatory agency has rarely exerted great oversight over polluting corporations. DENR didn’t pay much attention to TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline spill in 2017. The agency trusted a private mining company to investigate the Gilt Edge Mine Superfund site. DENR backed the aborted Deep Borehole Field Test to bury nuclear waste in South Dakota. The Legislature stripped DENR’s regulatory authority over uranium mining a decade ago to boost Powertech/Azarga’s hopes of digging for nuclear fuel in the Black Hills. DENR has at least acknowledged that climate change poses new risks to infrastructure in South Dakota. DENR has mentioned that industrial agriculture is a major contributor to water quality problems, but the agency’s record on helping South Dakotans prevent pollution from giant factory feedlots has been mixed, with repeat environmental offenders getting to build new CAFOs.

But even those occasional nods toward greenery must be eradicated from Kristi Noem’s crony-capitalist regime. While America yawned over her speech to the Trump convention, she crowned her corporate capture of environmental regulation by “merging” the DENR with the pro-industry Department of Agriculture:

Today, Governor Kristi Noem announced the South Dakota Departments of Agriculture and Environment & Natural Resources will merge to form the streamlined South Dakota Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

…“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 Gov. Noem. “Agriculture is our number one industry, and under Secretary Roberts’ leadership, this department will serve our producers better than ever before” [Governor’s Office, press release, 2020.08.27].

Note the Governor doesn’t say anything about her “streamlining” improving the quality of environmental protection. No, she’s knocking the word “Environment” right out of the new agency’s name. This merger is about government serving Big Ag and other corporate cronies who want to exploit our natural resources with less enforcement of long-term sustainable environmental practices. The man she puts in charge, current DENR flunktionary Hunter Roberts, is a Republican scion with no prior environmental resume. He mentions protecting natural resources in the press release, but he parrots the pro-corporate propaganda that “farmers and ranchers are the best conservationists” when we know from experience that people concentrating several thousand head of livestock and millons of gallons of poop in a few acres and spraying dicamba all over the county on windy days are not the best conservationists. Roberts, like Noem, is all business.

Politically, Noem’s drowning of environmental regulation in the Big Ag bathtub is brilliant. She can say she’s following through on the promise she made in 2018 not to bloat government the way her primary opponent Marty Jackley would have. She’s not just resisting the creation of new task forces; she’s eliminating an entire government agency. She’s building on decades of pro-CAFO policy and her own year of suspending environmental regulations and stripping away local control that hampers factory farm recruitment and expansion. This “merger” neatly encapsulates a consistent anti-government, pro-business philosophy that makes brilliant Republican messaging for whatever Republican nomination Noem is campaigning for. (Noem 2024: Tearing Down Government, Building Up Business!… though the more accurate encapsulation of Noem’s Trump-heirism is Tearing Down Government, Putting up Statues!)

But underneath the reducing-government/increasing-liberty gloss, this “merger” is ending the tension of environmental regulation and economic development by putting oversight of massively polluting corporate farms in the hands of a corporate-crony agency that hands out millions of dollars in tax breaks to build more of those poop and pollution factories. Even more birlliant than the messaging is the practical internal rearranging of the bureaucracy to remove one more hurdle to the consistent application of the business-über-alles mindset of South Dakota’s corporate fascism.

According the Governor’s FY2021 budget proposal, DENR has about 180 FTEs; Ag has about 220. No word yet on how many of those jobs will go poofskies… but if they do, you can bet they’ll all come from the DENR side.

But hold on: both the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture are creatures of statute. They’re right next to each other in the law books—DENR SDCL Chapter 1-40, Ag SDCL 1-41. Governor Noem can put Hunter Roberts in charge of both agencies, and Secretary Secretary Roberts can certainly order the DENR staff to roll over and play dead, but the Governor can’t create a whole new department without statutory authority. The Legislature budgeted money to those two specific departments; money in this fiscal year can’t suddenly flow to a department that did not exist in name or in statute until the Legislature amends that budget or writes a new one.

Hmmm… maybe we’ll get that Special Session sooner than we thought.


  1. John 2020-08-29 09:14

    Thanks for the reporting and observations. There is a reason for separating functions, posts, and agencies. Agencies need to resist industry or interest group capture — for the nation’s health and welfare.

    Here’s an example of how, despite at least 28 years of FBI warnings, right-wing white supremacists infiltrated local law enforcement agencies. Government is OUR business – and requires vigilance and separation of roles and functions – and oversight.

  2. Donald Pay 2020-08-29 09:48

    Merging GFP and DENR makes more sense, if you are looking for efficiency.

    DENR gets most of its money from the feds for administration of federal environmental programs. There are requirements for these programs that must be met, and they are subject to citizen hearings and lawsuits. It requires an active citizenry to ride herd, but it can be done.

  3. leslie 2020-08-29 10:00

    Wow. This is/was a significant agency. DWNR/DENR/DNR. Rounds has wanted to eliminate Fed EPA for years?! Good thing perchlorate at Keystone watershed is not a thing anymore. And Homestake owns all Black Hills timber/water. Thx trump/noem. (Too bad Daugaard didn’t wind up owning Spearfish canyon.) Republicans: Guns, god and unsustainability.

  4. jerry 2020-08-29 15:04

    Part of the new trump party of nationalization of everything. including Wall Street.

    “Government intervention in the economy used to be anathema to conservatives. But when the Senate called a vote last month on legislation that would direct billions of federal dollars to semiconductor manufacturers, nearly every Republican supported it.” Washington Post 8.29.20

    Agriculture is so close to being nationalized, it should be. Stop all the subsidies and just become what we really are, government workers. Now, we just need a pension plan that is the same kind of deal these senators voted for.

  5. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-08-29 18:17

    Right on, John. It’s like merging the EPA with the Department of Commerce, or giving the Governor a seat on the Supreme Court

    I like Donald’s idea: if we must streamline, it does make sense to put environmental stewardship and Game Fish and Parks together… because the range science majors I met at SDSU we he real conservationists.

    Or how about letting Governor’s Office of Economic Development swallow up the Department of Ag?

  6. Mark Winegar 2020-08-30 06:20

    We’re watching this issue closely and encouraging everyone to write or call their state legislators.

  7. mike from iowa 2020-08-30 08:10

    Why not pay Farm Burro to take over all the environmental and game and fish departments, plus land stewardship. They have to be back there pulling a lot of the strings as it stands.

  8. grudznick 2020-08-30 08:31

    As an evironmentalist and a Scientist, along with Mr. Pay grudznick will be watching closely, but instead of just screaming the willies and throwing mud on this I will be paying attention to the facts and action. There is enough screaming of the willies and throwing mud going on by others for all of us.

  9. sdslim 2020-08-30 11:15

    SD, DENR, by direction of the Gov. and Legislature has never been very strong or able to carry out their mission. The Legislature has actually hand cuffed them on several occasions like the uranium mining, reporting violations of water and pollution laws, and other issues. That wasn’t good enough for Noem, so she is trying to bury it altogether. Like what was already stated, we all need to contact our people in the Legislature and express our opposition and dismay about her actions, along with challenging her legal authority to do this.

  10. Troy 2020-09-03 22:30

    Don Pay is correct. Much of what DENR does is driven to large degree federal law. But, what federal law can’t insure is good communication.

    Merging these two departments have been discussed for decades, likely back to when Don was there. The only reason it wasn’t done was because of the politics: Our #1 industry deserved its own Department.

    However, the reality is the best farmers are also conservationists and farmers can be the most effective environmentalists if they have access to the best information. Merging these two Departments who have common priorities will insure information flow is best.

    When this was discussed 30 years ago all at the table (including Don if he was there) realized it would actually get conservation and environmental input on policies and actions earlier in the process and with more influence.

    Let me give you a small example: Weed control falls on the farmer and local weed control boards mostly controlled in rural counties (where the most weeds are) by farmers. So, decisions, policies and practices are almost always pursued in good faith in that circle. Well, DNR (& GF&P) had an interest in weed control as it impacts water through run-off (where do ditches run?).

    I know it sounds easy to say just make then communicate better but in practice divided responsibilities, different “mandates”, different bosses, & different buildings create barriers both internally but more importantly externally. The people controlling weeds on the ground called Agriculture because that is who they knew. Agriculture isn’t anti-environment but its not their focus or expertise.

    Not everything is political. Let’s imagine every accusation against Noem is true regarding the environment, it is flat out moronic to assert a single policy would be different whether these two departments were separate or combined. NOT A SINGLE POLICY.

    Sometimes new days and new realities demand the best ways to deliver good government is to reorganize. If there is a criticism to be made, we should have done this 30 or 40 years ago.

    P.S. When you look at the relative sizes of these two departments, their programs, power of their citizen boards, budget and regulatory authority, it is ludicrous to think environmental issues are going to get be overwhelmed. As I write this PS, I realize the assertion is flat out uninformed to a degree I’m shocked to see in writing.

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