At a time when more Hoosiers are getting outside, the legislature has made even more budget cuts to Indiana’s underfunded and understaffed environmental agencies.
The funding for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources for the 2022 and 2023 fiscal years will be about 3 percent lower than the current budget. Even though the Indiana Department of Environmental Management received more money from the state's general fund, it will be operating with about 11 percent fewer dollars overall.
The Hoosier Environmental Council said budgets for state environmental agencies haven’t recovered since the 2008 recession — making it difficult for them to retain employees and ultimately do their jobs.
Take IDEM’s program to clean up contaminated land called “brownfield sites,” for example. Last year, the agency only had 11 people to oversee cleanups on more than 470 sites.
Tim Maloney, HEC senior policy director, said fewer staff also makes it harder for IDEM to recover money for cleanups from the parties responsible for that pollution.
“That's an extra burden on the state when responsible parties aren’t paying what they're able to pay. So that's another impact of the funding for that program," he said.
Because of low staff numbers, IDEM created a program in 2012 that allows parties responsible for polluting lower priority sites to do cleanups without direct oversight from the agency.
Indiana could also be missing out on an opportunity to further grow the outdoor recreation industry that has boomed because of the pandemic. COVID-19 restrictions have led to crowding at some of Indiana’s trails and campgrounds and more people buying bikes and RVs.
Maloney said there’s a demand for quality outdoor spaces — and more of them.
“Indiana is not equipped to meet that demand because we have so under-invested in our natural resources over the years," he said.
More than half of all Indiana counties don’t have enough acres set aside for local public parks, according to guidelines by the National Recreation and Parks Association.
State lawmakers did appropriate some dollars from a federal COVID-19 relief package for trails and land conservation — but it’s unclear if the state is allowed to use the money for that purpose.
Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.