Governor appoints long-time Georgia Department of Natural Resources employee to head agency • Georgia Recorder

The governor has named a longtime state Department of Natural Resources employee to head the sprawling agency that oversees state parks, industrial pollution, hunting and fishing regulations and more.

Gov. Brian Kemp announced Tuesday morning — just as a Board of Natural Resources meeting was underway — that Walter Rabon was his choice to be the next commissioner. Rabon had served as interim commissioner since July 1, when Mark Williams Left to head the Jekyll Island Authority.

“Throughout his many years of service to the state of Georgia and our Department of Natural Resources, Walter Rabon has been dedicated to the mission of protecting hardworking Georgians and their ability to enjoy our outdoor spaces,” Kemp said in a statement. “I look forward to the DNR’s continued success in ensuring our state manages its natural resources well as he continues to lead the department.”

Rabon, who previously served as deputy commissioner under Williams, told reporters afterward that he views the former commissioner as a mentor and intends to stay that course.

“We have set a great direction for agencies to move in and we hope to continue on that path,” Rabon said.

Rabon has worked for the agency for three decades, first as a so-called game warden in the law enforcement department, later as a major before being appointed deputy commissioner. He holds a bachelor's degree in public administration from Brenau University and a master's degree from Columbus State University. He lives in Mansfield.

But Rabon's not-so-distant past also includes a 2017 arrest for driving under the influence in Jasper County. He was a deputy commissioner at the time and was arrested after crashing his 2015 Chevrolet Corvette, which he allegedly did after turning to miss a deer. Nine bottles of moonshine were found in the back of his car.

His blood alcohol level was reportedly 0.146 News reports by the time. The state agency's law enforcement division enforces a number of Georgia laws, including restrictions on boating under the influence.

“I’m not a perfect man,” Rabon said after the meeting. “I made bad decisions and I was responsible and accountable for those decisions and I worked every day to overcome those bad decisions.”

Rabon takes the helm as the new director, as does Jeff Cown can be settled in with the state Environmental Protection Division, which is part of the DNR.

Some environmentalists and conservationists who met Tuesday praised the decision to hire people within the agency.

Rena Ann Peck, executive director of the Georgia River Network, said she sees the recent career agency appointments as a good thing for Georgia.

“I hope it helps divert more politics from the task of protecting our natural resources and promoting Georgia as a mecca for outdoor recreation,” Peck said.

Like Peck, Mike Worley, president of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, a conservation group, said he viewed Rabon's appointment as encouraging news for the DNR's ranks and a sign that the agency will continue on its usual path. But he hopes the influx of new leaders will also provide an opportunity for change.

“My desire for DNR is a closer connection to science, and I think I would like to see a forward-looking, more aggressive approach to positive management of our natural resources,” Worley said. “Our DNR does an outstanding job, but as always, we could do better.”