The Department of Conservation was established in 1931 by the legislature for the purpose of restructuring the state's natural resource and conservation agencies into one central unit (Laws 1931 c186). The 1925 law which created the first Conservation Commission (Laws 1925 c426 artIV) also provided for the establishment of a Conservation Department, but the separate departments represented by the commission retained their autonomy until the 1931 legislation. The Conservation Department took over the powers and duties of the departments of Drainage and Waters, Forestry and Fire Prevention, Game and Fish, and the commissioner of state land (a function of the state auditor). A new Conservation Commission, also created by this act, was composed of five citizen members who served terms of six years and elected a commissioner of conservation. The department was originally organized with a Division of Forestry, a Division of Drainage and Waters, a Division of Game and Fish, and a Division of Lands and Minerals. Each division was under the immediate charge of a director. A Division of State Parks was added in 1935 (Laws 1935 c340).
In 1937 the commission was eliminated (Laws 1937 c310) and the department was put under the charge of the commissioner of conservation who was appointed by the governor. The department was directly responsible for conserving and promoting the wise use and management of the public domain and natural resources of the state. Duties of the department included administration of state-owned lands and mining operations conducted thereon; flood control and water power development; regulation of hunting, fishing, and wild life propagation; administration of state-owned forests; fire prevention; regulation of timber sales and cutting on state land; and regulation and administration of the state parks system. The department also provided education and information services to the public. The internal divisional structure of the department was changed from time to time (see individual division histories), but the overall administration of the department had few major changes after 1937.
In 1967, though, it was somewhat restructured to strengthen the commissioner's office by centralizing the operating authority completely under the commissioner and eliminating duplication of functions of the divisional directors (Laws 1967 c905). In 1971 the department's name was changed to the Department of Natural Resources and the commissioner became the commissioner of natural resources (Laws 1969 c1129). Under the same law, the state Geographic Board was abolished and all of its powers and duties were transferred to the commissioner of natural resources.