The Georgia Department of Natural Resources Board voted on Tuesday to appoint Walter Rabon as the new commissioner.

While a drunken driving arrest five years ago appeared to stall his three-decade career at DNR, Gov. Brian Kemp lauded his talent and dedication to Georgia’s outdoors when he nominated him to the top job. Rabon had been serving as as interim commissioner for the department since July 1.

Walter Rabon
Walter Rabon Credit: Ga. DNR

Rabon vowed to keep the agency “between the ditches,” as he starts his tenure.

“What an honor and a privilege to come alongside you in a new role, and serve with the men and women of DNR in this new new direction that we’ll go,” Rabon told the board Tuesday at their meeting in Atlanta, which was not livestreamed. “We’ll try to keep it in the same direction and keep it between the ditches is my commitment to you.”

Rabon’s appointment comes just weeks after the appointment of Jeff Cown as director of the Environmental Protection Division, DNR’s regulatory arm. Former DNR head Mark Williams now serves as executive director of the Jekyll Island Authority.

A resident of Jasper County, Rabon began his career with DNR as a conservation ranger, now referred to as game wardens, and worked his way up through the Law Enforcement Division, serving as a Major before becoming deputy commissioner in 2015. Rabon earned a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Brenau University and a master’s degree from Columbus State University.

In 2017, as deputy commissioner, Rabon was arrested for drunken driving in his home county after crashing his friend’s Corvette into a ditch to avoid a deer. The sheriff’s deputies found 14 jars of moonshine in the car.

Rabon was suspended from the DNR and pleaded guilty to one count of DUI Less Safe in Jasper County Probate Court. He completed 40 hours of community service at an animal shelter and a 20-hour DUI alcohol risk reduction class, a DNR internal investigation reported. (Body camera video of the law enforcement investigation of the crash The Current obtained through an open records request is available here.)

Last year Rabon was again the subject of scrutiny after he asked DNR division directors to each designate up to five employees to attend the funeral of then-Commissioner Mark Williams’ mother-in-law, a request that ethics watchdog William Perry said “didn’t pass the smell test.” Rabon defended his decision saying DNR is “routinely referred to as a family.”

Along with the commissioner’s office, the DNR has five divisions: Wildlife Resources Division, Coastal Resources Division, Law Enforcement Division, Environmental Protection Division and Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites Division. The commissioner’s role is to “supervise, direct, account for, organize, plan, administer, and execute the functions vested in the DNR.” The department had 1,717 full-time employees last year; it was 1,740 five years prior. DNR’s 2024 fiscal year budget is $344 million, about half of which comes from state funds and half from federal.

Kemp, who put up Rabon for the agency’s top job, praised his nominee after the board approved him.

“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 prepared 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.”

The change in leadership at DNR and EPD comes as the agencies are evaluating a controversial request to strip mine in Charlton County near the Okefenokee Swamp.

Environmental attorney Josh Marks, who has led opposition to the mining, hopes Rabon’s experience with the department bodes well for the Okefenokee.

“Having spent the last 30 years with DNR, Commissioner Rabon knows better than most the value and importance of protecting Georgia’s natural resources for the benefit of Georgia’s citizens,” he wrote in an email.  “Hopefully, he will keep that top of mind as he guides the agency going forward.  A great way to start would be to urge Governor Kemp and EPD Director Cown to deny the permit applications for TPM’s dangerous strip-mining proposal along the Okefenokee’ eastern boundary, which is overwhelmingly opposed by the scientific community, the Georgia legislature, and the general public.”  

For the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, water quality is paramount as the watershed braces for the development accompanying the Hyundai Metaplant in Bryan County.

“Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) performs a vital service in ensuring the safety, protection, and enjoyment of our environment — including impacts on water quality — in our state,” the Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization wrote in a prepared statement. “The Ogeechee Riverkeeper looks forward to continuing its working relationship with DNR and encourages Commissioner Rabon to seek more funding and resources so the department can more effectively achieve its mission.”

Mary Landers is a reporter in Coastal Georgia focusing on the environment for The Current. It's a topic she covered for nearly 24 years at the Savannah Morning News, where she began and ended her time...