HD74 - Structure of Virginia's Natural Resources Secretariat

Executive Summary:
House Joint Resolution 173, passed during the 1996 Session of the Virginia General Assembly, directs JLARC to "study the organization of State agencies and their function within the Commonwealth's Natural Resources Secretariat." This resolution also directs JLARC to examine whether the functions of these agencies might be redundant with functions performed by agencies outside of the Natural Resources Secretariat. In addition, Item 14 C of the 1996 Appropriation Act requires that "Pursuant to House Joint Resolution 173...the Commission shall also examine... the permit and other fee structures utilized by Natural Resources agencies, including a comparison of the Commonwealth's fee structures with those in similar and neighboring states."

The primary finding of this review regarding the organization of natural resources agencies and functions is that Virginia's structural approach has some strengths and is generally appropriate, although there are some issues or problem areas that should be considered. Regarding Virginia's permit and other fee structures, the primary finding of the review is that most of the 11 Virginia permits or fee structures that were examined rank in the middle or lower third in magnitude when compared to other states.

Virginia's Structural Approach Has Certain Strengths and Is Generally Appropriate

Virginia's natural resources functions are divided among several agencies across three secretariats. In the last several years, JLARC staff have conducted nine studies pertaining to natural resources functions and agencies. Through these studies, a number of problems were identified. However, this current review indicates that most of the problems are not structural in origin. Virginia's decentralized system has some strengths, which include its ability to bring varied expertise and perspectives to bear on environmental issues. Ultimately, with any structure there will always be some separation of responsibilities, whether at the agency, division, or program level, and hence, coordination is necessary under any structure. The challenge lies in ensuring that the environmental programs are working toward similar goals and that they are well coordinated where there are overlapping impacts.

Overall, there is no single "right" approach to structuring Virginia's natural resources functions. The key to effective resource protection and management is clear, coordinated policy and program implementation, coupled with ongoing assessments of the condition of the natural resources. The Code of Virginia gives responsibility to the Secretary of Natural Resources for ensuring that environmental issues crossing functional areas are identified and that various agencies' resources are jointly brought to bear on cross-cutting issues.

This review has found that, generally, Virginia has a range of environmental programs "on the books," and, as such, does not appear to have a major problem with gaps in natural resources services. Further, this review did not identify programs that should be privatized or eliminated outright. While potential targets of opportunity for privatization were considered, further examination of these areas found that, in their current form, they are appropriate State programs.

In addition, while there are overlapping responsibilities in a number of environmental functions, there are many examples of where Virginia's natural resources agencies are working together to address these overlapping issues. In many cases agencies have clearly enumerated their discrete responsibilities within the context of the broader, overlapping roles. However, there are also some areas which would benefit from greater coordination, and yet other areas in which consolidation of agency functions may be warranted.

Issues or Problems With Virginia's Structure That Should Be Considered

This review has identified some problems resulting from Virginia's decentralized natural resources structure. Three areas where problems exist include the coordination of land management activities, long-range environmental planning, and water pollution prevention. For example, there are some areas where the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF), and Department of Forestry (DOF) could better coordinate their activities to improve resource management and enable the public to have more opportunities to use the land under the control of these agencies. It also appears that it would be useful for the State to have a formal, written plan to identify major priorities and guide the State's short-term and long-term environmental efforts across agencies. In addition, the recent tributary strategy effort illustrates the type of action needed on a statewide basis to bring a more coordinated approach to identifying water quality problems and developing appropriate strategies to address these problems. It appears that there is not a need to consider alternative structural arrangements in order to address these issues.

However, there are also areas where it appears that some structural changes could be considered to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of Virginia's environmental programs. For instance, the nonpoint source pollution prevention activities of DCR and the Chesapeake Bay Local Assistance Department (CBLAD) overlap and are fragmented. CBLAD's area of authority covers Tidewater Virginia, but does not include much of Virginia's portion of the Shenandoah and Potomac Basin nor the full Chesapeake Bay drainage area. The Chesapeake Bay model indicates that the Shenandoah and Potomac Basin accounts for most of the nutrients from Virginia that impact the Chesapeake Bay. As an agency with statewide jurisdiction, DCR, through its Division of Soil and Water Conservation, addresses the impact of nutrients on the Chesapeake Bay inside and outside the Tidewater area. Given their overall consistency of purpose and to achieve a greater unity of effort on nonpoint source issues, there may be some advantages to consolidating CBLAD into DCR. It is also recognized, however, that consideration of such a change could raise some concerns, such as a potential loss of some visibility to Virginia's efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, potential loss of benefits derived from having work performed in a small agency, and ensuring that the effort in the Tidewater area would not be diminished.

Further, the Agricultural Stewardship Act, currently administered by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, would be more appropriately placed within DCR, which is the State's lead agency for nonpoint source pollution prevention programs. Also, as mentioned in a previous JLARC report, consolidating the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, DGIF, and DCR's natural heritage program is a feasible option to be considered to improve wildlife management in Virginia.

Virginia's Fees Typically Rank in the Middle or Lower Third Compared to Other States

JLARC staff compared Virginia's fee levels for 11 natural resources permits. Data for these fees, which are major fees common to many states, were obtained from up to 20 other southeastern and Atlantic states.

This review found that Virginia charges a fee for all the services and major permits included in this analysis. Therefore, no additional funding sources were identified. In addition, this review found that of the 11 fees examined, only one of Virginia's fees is in the higher third of the states that participated in the JLARC survey: Section 401 of the Clean Water Act permits. There were four fees in the lower third, including one and two bedroom state park cabins, hunting licenses, and Prevention of Significant Deterioration permits for air pollution. Five fees were in the middle third: state park admission fees, state park primitive camping fees, recreational fishing licenses, National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permits, and solid waste landfill permits. One fee (commercial fishing licenses) could not be ranked due to the wide range of fishing activities and charges that are encompassed in that category.

A 1996 survey of Virginia's natural resources agencies' constituents asked respondents to indicate whether the fees charged by the natural resources agency with which they associate are appropriate. For each agency, the majority of respondents reported that the fee levels are appropriate.