Noem combined two state agencies. Now both groups fear their interests will lose out.

Joe Sneve
Sioux Falls Argus Leader
Sun shines on a local farm Tuesday, June 4.

Farmers are wary environmental interests will outweigh theirs.

Environmentalists worry their interests will take a backseat to farming.

With few details about plans to replace South Dakota's agriculture and environmental agencies for a hybrid department that blends the two divisions of state government into one, enthusiasm for the recent move by the governor's office is hard to find outside of Gov. Kristi Noem and her staff. 

And with more questions than answers, both agriculture producers and environmental buffs have concerns about how the state will manage competing interests under one department.

Late last month, Noem's office announced her intentions to combine the South Dakota Departments of Agriculture and Environment & Natural Resources "to form the streamlined South Dakota Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources."

Noem's plan would have DENR Secretary Hunter Roberts overseeing the new combined department.

What each department does

Both departments are regulatory in nature. DENR issues waste water permits and oversees discharge limits set on businesses, farms and municipalities. The agriculture department, meanwhile, performs inspections and issues chemical permits for farmers and ranchers. It also oversees the state's wild-land fire and forestry divisions.

The two departments account for about 400 of the state's employees and $73 million in the yearly budget.

Roberts told the Argus Leader Wednesday that the primary functions of both departments won't change. Rather, combining departments will allow for the sharing of staff and eliminating areas of overlap and duplication, he said.

"My main priority with the job is getting the team together and finding ways to find synergies and efficiencies," Roberts said.

Where the concerns lie

Sometimes the interests of the environment and agriculture compete.

DENR is responsible for enforcing pollution standards that often limit the amount of livestock a farming operation is permitted to have. 

That's why the farming community and environmental advocates worry the missions of each department could be undermined under shared leadership, depending on the backgrounds and knowledge of who's calling the shots for the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

While Roberts has experience with both departments — serving as DENR secretary under Noem and as a policy advisor for Governor Dennis Daugaard working on agricultural policy and overseeing the South Dakota Department of Agriculture, the next person in the position might not have as diverse a resume, said South Dakota Farm Bureau Federation President Scott VanderWal.

"DENR has a totally different mission and job than agriculture does, but at the same time they both effect us pretty strongly," he said. "We worry that someone with more of an environmental leaning than agriculture could come in."

A hog farm in Hand County, South Dakota.

The name of the new department in itself, with no mention of "environment," is worrisome for groups like Dakota Rural Action and Friends of the Big Sioux River. Coupled with the governor's established desire for more concentrated animal feeding operations, they say a lack of emphasis on the environmental and pollution control functions of state government could be coming.

“Water is the most precious natural resource we have," said John Harter, chairman of Dakota Rural Action. "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.”

Jay Gilbertson manages the East Dakota Water Development District and advocates for higher environmental standards. He said because agriculture is the state's leading industry, it's also the leading cause of water pollution due to runoff from farming operations into nearby streams and waterways.

And though Roberts and Noem have reassured the public that environmental standards won't change under the combined department, Gilbertson said the merger could lead to a "fox in the henhouse" situation.

"There’s got to be somebody looking out for the environment as a priority," he said. "I would wonder about situations where the ag side might look at things and say this could be really great. Where’s the counterpoint going to come from?"

What happens next

Noem and Roberts, though, are quick to point out that duty of bolstering agriculture development in the state has not been a function of the agriculture department during her tenure. Rather, recruiting new farming operations and luring more concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to South Dakota has been the responsibility of the economic development office since 2019.

They're also not concerned environmental standards will go by the wayside without the DENR in existence because the regulations come from outside of the state and will continue to be adhered to, she said. 

"The recommendations for what those are and the accountability measures come through other methods and not from with the (DENR) agency," Noem told the Argus Leader following a speaking engagement in Sioux Falls earlier this week. "It's all federal partnership that we have with other agencies at that level."

Noem and Roberts both say the biggest impact will be "streamlining" the administrative functions of the departments. While he doesn't anticipate laying off any DENR or agriculture staff as a result of the merger, Roberts said some savings and efficiencies will come by not filling some vacant positions, eliminating the need for two department heads and two executive assistants.

Goslings stand with a parent on the banks of the Big Sioux River on Wednesday, April 29, in Sioux Falls.

It'll also make navigating the permitting process for ag producers simpler, Roberts said.

"For a lot of the customers, they wonder if this is a DENR thing or an ag thing," he said. "Now it’s all of it. You just come straight to the department of Agriculture and Natural Resources."

Noem is expected to firm up operational details ahead of her December budget address, before asking the state Legislature to formally confirm Roberts' appointment as secretary of the new department.

"We're gonna have some fun over the next month or so where we’re moving all the pieces," Roberts said. "And we will still adhere to environmental standards.".