Warren Budd, the vice chairman of the state Board of Natural Resources, calls himself a “green conservative” and claims there are a lot of people like him.
A lifelong active Republican, the insurance agent from Newnan is also an avid outdoorsman. “I care about conservation, and I care about this state,” he said in an interview last week. “I represent the average guy who likes to fish and hunt. This is a beautiful state, and I like to think that there will be something of it left for our grandchildren to enjoy.”
However, even though he was in line to become chair of the 18-member DNR board next year, Budd has been informed that he will not be reappointed when his seven-year term ends on Jan. 1. According to Budd, a “green conservative” point of view is no longer welcome by Gov. Nathan Deal, who wants no dissent from a pro-development agenda that favors special interests.
“”They are very into message-control,” Budd said. “They don’t want board members to act like a board.”
Budd acknowledges that as a DNR board member, he pushed the state Environmental Protection Division to move more aggressively in dealing with a major fishkill on the Ogeechee River in May. Tens of thousands of fish were killed along an 80-mile stretch of river, and an investigation traced the cause back to King America Finishing, a textile plant that had been dumping flame-retardant chemicals into the river for as long as five years, undetected and without a permit.
In the end, the company agreed to spend $1 million on environmental projects in the Ogeechee watershed, a small price to pay considering the nature of its violation and the fact it could have been fined more than $90 million. The settlement was strongly criticized by environmentalists, outdoorsmen and civic leaders in the Ogeechee watershed as too lenient.
“We talk about protecting business, but I talked to one bait-shop owner whose business was down 70 percent because of that fishkill,” Budd said. “He’s a businessman too, and he wasn’t alone. A lot of people who make their living off that river were hurt.”
According to Budd, the DNR board has been told it can no longer elect its own officers, and instead those officers will be named by the governor. Deal’s top spokesman, Brian Robinson, says that the board remains free to elect its own officers, but that “several board members have asked the governor for his opinion.” According to Robinson, the governor wants to appoint board members “who are excited team players ready to carry out his agenda for our state.”
“Some are reappointments, some fill openings and some are replacements,” Robinson said. “It’s part of the process. It allows new blood, new ideas and new people a chance to serve the state on a volunteer basis. If anyone on any board considers himself indispensable, this is what educators call a ‘teachable moment.’ It takes an eyebrow-raising amount of self-regard for someone to suggest publicly that, out of 10 million Georgians, only he or she brings a diverse viewpoint to a board.”
While Budd is complimentary to his fellow DNR board members, the truth is that the 18-member panel charged with protecting the state’s environment has long been dominated by developers, real estate interests and business people, with conservationists and environmentalists all but excluded.
For example, Aaron McWhorter, appointed to the board by Deal in May, sells “mitigation credits” that allow wetlands to be destroyed for construction projects, housing developments and, just by happenstance, major reservoir projects. Budd, on the other hand, has expressed doubts about the governor’s plan to build major new reservoirs in north Georgia, noting that such projects destroy miles of streams and rivers. And he believes that the decision not to reappoint him means that such sentiments will no longer be tolerated.
“Governor [Zell] Miller, [Roy] Barnes and [Sonny] Perdue all had diverse boards,” Budd said. “Moving toward a monolithic board is not healthy in a state of 10 million people with all of these competing interests.”