For The Record

Governor taps long-time Georgia Department of Natural Resources employee to head agency

By: - August 22, 2023 5:37 pm

Walter Rabon, the new commissioner of the state Department of Natural Resources, poses for a photo after his first Board of Natural Resources meeting Tuesday. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

The governor has appointed a long-time staffer of the state Department of Natural Resources to lead 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 pick to serve as the next commissioner. Rabon had been serving as interim commissioner since July 1 when Mark Williams left to lead the Jekyll Island Authority.

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

Rabon, who previously served as deputy commissioner under Williams, told reporters afterwards that he saw the former commissioner as a mentor and that he plans to stay the course. 

“We’ve got a great direction that the agencies are headed, and we hope to continue down that path,” Rabon said.

Rabon has been with the agency for three decades, starting out as what is now known as a game warden within the law enforcement division and later becoming a major before being named deputy commissioner. He has 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 serving as deputy commissioner at the time and was arrested after he crashed his 2015 Chevrolet Corvette, which he said he did after swerving to miss a deer. Nine bottles of moonshine were found in the back of his car.

His blood alcohol level was .146, according to news reports at the time. The state agency’s law enforcement division enforces a range of Georgia laws, including limits on boating under the influence.  

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

Rabon is taking the helm as a new director, Jeff Cown, also settles in at the state Environmental Protection Division, which is part of DNR.

Some environmental advocates and conservationists reached Tuesday praised the decision to hire from within the agency.

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

“It helps, I hope, to keep more of the politics out of doing the business 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 saw Rabon’s appointment as encouraging news for DNR’s ranks and a sign the agency will continue on a familiar path. But he said he hopes the influx of new management will also bring an opportunity for some change.

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


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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.