Wayne Rosenthal is rooted in the fields and forests of central Illinois.
A Macoupin County native who served 30 years in the Illinois Air National Guard before retiring in 2001 as a brigadier general, Rosenthal began farming his family property in 1990 and helped establish the Wild Rural Park Hunting and Fishing Preserve, which was designed to promote youth hunting and teach conservation. He has served on the Macoupin County Soil and Water Conservation District Board and was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 2011.
Rosenthal was appointed the director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in January 2015 by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner. Although the state budget crisis made his first 18 months on the job a struggle, Rosenthal believes Illinois is still a destination state for outdoorsmen and wants to continue to create wildlife habitat that sustains that.
With so many outdoor activities happening right now, how exciting of a time is this for the DNR?
Most of the people are here because they like the outdoors. We're getting to the point where the hunting seasons are starting, and you do a lot of work on the habitat. That's something we work on all year. Everybody is eternally optimistic about the big buck they are going to shoot in the fall when they are deer hunting. You have this optimism going into the season where you're like, "This is going to be the year." Everybody has done the work to get the habitat in place. They have their food plots out there. They've been working on getting their stands up. That's the way my boys are and a lot of their friends are. That's the way our archery and shotgun hunters are, for sure. The early part of dove season has come and gone. Duck season, everybody is looking forward to saying this year is going to be better than last year. They've got their blinds drawn and their blinds in. Everybody is optimistic about the hunting season and the opportunity to get outdoors. The important thing is we continue to provide the opportunities for people to enjoy the outdoors through the facilities and the things we do at the DNR.
Are you a bowhunter?
I am. We were just talking about this morning, and we don't ever really go out until after the weather gets a little colder. If you happen to wound one, we want to make sure we recover it without the meat going bad. We are pretty much trophy hunters. Once we shoot a couple of bucks of pretty good size, we don't have much trouble with meat in the freezer. We have 30-some heads on the wall, but the last six or seven we put up there, we had multiple opportunities to harvest them in previous years and we didn't. We gave them the opportunity to mature. The goal is to get bucks 4 1/2 years old and give them the chance to grow.
I know you grew up farming. Did you also grow up as a hunter?
I grew up hunting rabbits and pheasants and throwing lead at quail. We never really had any deer or turkey until the 1980s where I hunted. I didn't start deer hunting until the '80s because there was no place to go in central Illinois. I started bowhunting because I could get a tag. For gun season, it was a lottery, and you may or may not be lucky enough to get a tag. The other thing, archery hunting allowed me to go outside and get outdoors. I didn't care necessarily about shooting a deer, but it gave me the opportunity to just be outside and learn more about the deer and how they react to things.
I realize your job is political, but do you still get the opportunity to get outside and get away from the office?
I do, and the great thing is I get to go out to all of the state parks and visit them. I hike on their trails occasionally, not as often as I should and need to, but I get visit a lot of them. I spend a lot of time on the road out and about. I still farm, too. That is the relaxing part, to get outside and see what's going on. I stop every morning on the drive over at our hunting club. You never know what you're going to see in the mornings.
I know budgets have made it a challenge, but are our state parks still a quality resource?
Knowing the lack of resources we've had over the last 12-14 years, since 2002 especially because we've been cut out 74 percent within the agency, it amazes me how well the parks are maintained with the personnel we have. Essentially, we have half as many people working at the parks as we did at one time. There was a time we had about 560 acres per individual per employee. Now, we're up to more than 1,100 acres per employee because we've acquired more property, but we have less people. To me, it's pretty amazing how well they maintain those parks with the lack of resources. What it really comes down to is personal pride and the people. To them, that's their park, and they take a lot of pride in maintaining it. The word I get when I come back is they are really happy that I stopped to see them but they're disappointed that I saw them at probably their worst. I'm saying, to me, they've done extremely well under the circumstances. We are $750-$800 million behind in deferred maintenance on our parks statewide. You can absorb some of that for a while, but eventually the buildings, gazebos, picnic tables, the docks at some of the lakes, those things deteriorate over time. Eventually, we need to put money back into the parks.
Outdoor organizations have helped fund some projects in the state parks. That says a lot about what outdoorsmen value about the opportunities in Illinois, doesn't it?
Another big indicator of that: With the budget impasse we had last year where we weren't paying our bills and didn't have the ability to pay our bills, in particular our utilities and people who supply fuel to do the mowing and other things, any vendors who dealt with the parks that didn't get paid, they carried us for the whole year. They've all been paid now, but that goes back to the support we have from the local people who want the parks there and realize the economic benefit to having them open. We have thank all those vendors who supported us statewide. They would send us shutoff notices, but they would work with us and we managed to get through the whole year without anything closing down. That's a compliment and tribute to the local people.
Can you imagine not having state parks to go to or drive through?
People like myself, I have my own land so I get to live that every day. People who live in the cities, live in the towns and small villages, going to the state park is their opportunity to get out in nature and get out in the open spaces and forests and the trees. They don't have that on their own. It's important for the state to continue to provide that.
What is the biggest challenge the DNR faces?
To me, the biggest challenge is still trying to figure out what we can do with what we have. I tell people we don't worry about what we don't have. Let's figure out what we can do with what we do have. The challenge continues to be how can we leverage and utilize our resources, utilize our partners in the public and the private sector to work together to provide the best opportunities for our state.
What sets Illinois apart from other states with great outdoor opportunities?
We have the Illinois River and the Mississippi River. We have the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois, so we have a lot of different opportunities not all states have. They all have their own special things that they like to highlight. If you go to Starved Rock State Park or Pierre Marquette or Giant City, we have these incredible lodges that were built in the 1930s. We have the forests and the well-maintained trails for hiking and biking. We have the opportunity to get out. We're centrally located and have the good interstate systems and roadway systems to connect different parks. We have the lakes the Army Corps of Engineers built -- Rend Lake, Shelbyville, Carlyle -- which are all sources for recreation on the water. There are opportunities everywhere throughout the state, and I think people just need to know. One of our challenges is to let people know the opportunities are available to them.
What's your favorite thing to do in the outdoors?
I'm a deer hunter. That's what I like to do. We have turkeys. We have a preserve where we raise pheasant and quail and release those. We started that to have youth hunts, and it's grown from there. We're more concerned about habitat than anything else. That's the thing we work on. I still farm. Everything is conservation tillage. What I want to do is continue to improve water, air quality. One of the big issues right now is the monarch butterfly. I was at national meetings and I was saying, "I have monarchs on my farm." And I come to find out I have the habitat and the milkweeds they need. That's something that needs to be expanded across Illinois and across our landscape so we don't allow the monarch to become and endangered species listed. It's not only a state and local issue, but it's a national and international issue. I just enjoy watching the changing seasons. We have a lot of different ground in different conservation programs. We have three wetlands we've restored. We have 50-60 acres of trees we've replanted in the bottomlands. We've put dry dams in to control erosion. All those things work together for air quality, water quality, and it becomes part of sustainable agriculture.
Can you imagine if you hadn't grown up in an area or in a family that didn't appreciate the outdoors?
It would definitely be different. I was an aviator by trade. I flew F-4s, but I was always close to home and close to the farm. I spent 30 years doing that and lived at home and got to do both. My three sons grew up on the farm and in the outdoors. They are all deer hunters because there was no upland game when they were growing up in the '80s and early '90s. There just wasn't any. They became deer hunters because there was a deer and turkey population that was a success story of our agency. It's a life we love.
Is Illinois still a destination state for hunters?
Yes, it is. That's the way we'd like to keep it. We got hit with EHD (epizootic hemorrhagic disease) in 2008, and it three or four years until you saw the quality and trophy type deer to reappear. It took that long for the herd to recover. So I expect in Pike County and Calhoun County and the areas that got hit by EHD in 2012 will see the quality of deer starting to recover. Maybe this year, but definitely next year for sure.