With the November election six weeks away, neither Republican Gov. Scott Walker nor Democratic challenger Mary Burke have put forward any grand strategies for new environmental or outdoors policies.
In a race that has largely revolved around who can create jobs, both candidates are sticking to general comments about balancing the need to protect natural resources with economic development.
Walker’s record is clear: He spent his first four years in office reversing environmental regulations, suggesting more of the same if he wins a second term.
Burke, a Madison school board member mounting her first bid for a statewide office, has no environmental record. Still, the Sierra Club’s Wisconsin chapter has endorsed her.
“I don’t mind some of the vagaries,” said Shahla Werner, the chapter director. “We’re just asking for someone to use common sense in making sure our drinking water is safe and development isn’t going to have huge negatives for the environment. It’s been so partisan and ideological rather than data-based for the last four years, we can’t even reason with elected officials.”
Walker spent his first term pushing business-supported environmental initiatives, leading his opponents to accuse him of politicizing the Department of Natural Resources.
He created a new DNR office to support businesses and ordered the agency to take a softer approach in dealing with the public. The number of environmental violations the DNR has referred to the state Justice Department for enforcement has dropped 60 percent since Walker took office.
The governor signed legislation giving wastewater treatment plants, paper mills and food processors 20 years to comply with the state’s phosphorus pollution limits.
He also signed a Republican bill relaxing mining regulations to help jump-start Gogebic Taconite’s plans for an iron mine near Lake Superior despite conservationists’ concerns about pollution in the pristine region.
Walker has taken steps welcomed by hunters, including eliminating a DNR program that required hunters in areas with large deer herds to kill an antlerless deer before taking a buck.
He also hired a Texas researcher to study how the agency could improve relations with hunters.
And Walker signed a controversial bill creating a wolf hunt over complaints from animal rights advocates.
Eric Bott is the environmental policy director for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group.
He said his organization is pleased with Walker. WMC wants to see the governor speed up air and water permits and stand up for businesses as the state crafts a strategy to meet the Obama’s administration’s call to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next four years, he said.
“We’ve seen the governor is really focused on improving the regulatory process,” Bott said. “We would expect those reforms to continue.”
Asked about Walker’s future environmental agenda, campaign spokeswoman Alleigh Marre cited Walker’s experience as a Boy Scout and the lessons he learned about leaving his campsite cleaner than he found it.
“He applies the same approach to protecting our natural resources today,” she said in an email. “Governor Walker believes that the best way to be green is to help people save green or make green. If individuals can save or make money while preserving natural resources, it is both economically and environmentally sustainable.”
Burke, meanwhile, has never held a Wisconsin hunting or fishing license, according to the DNR.
Her campaign website says she opposes the iron mine because Republicans allowed Gogebic Taconite to write its own rules and wants communities to impose local sand mining regulations rather have the state dictate uniform standards.
The site offers almost no other specifics on Burke’s environmental or outdoors agendas, though.
Asked for Burke’s priorities, campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Wilson said by email that Burke would:
• Ensure the agency enforces current environmental law.
• Appoint a DNR secretary with a science-based background.
• Rely on science to manage the state’s deer and wolf hunts.
• Protect water quality.
The email said she would work with legislators to ensure responsible mining but didn’t say how.
George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said Burke seems to be looking at issues from a macro level and he’s pleased she’s committed to science.
“That,” Meyer said, “would be a breath of fresh air after this administration.”