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Wisconsin Republicans seek to demolish DNR

Republicans in control of the Wisconsin state Legislature are considering shutting down the Department of Natural Resources, scattering responsibilities for parks, forestry, environmental, hunting and fishing programs among three existing agencies and two new ones.

Gov. Scott Walker, who fired DNR scientists working in environmental protection and gutted the agency’s authority, is being coy about supporting the plan. But he’s expected to back it, and many observers believe he had a role in developing it.

Walker told the Journal Sentinel that Rep. Adam Jarchow, of Balsam Lake, gave his office a detailed proposal a month ago that would split environmental and wildlife functions into two separate departments. Other duties such as forestry and parks would go to other agencies.

Republicans, who favor development over conservation and have interests in companies seeking to exploit the state’s natural resources, have tried to break up the DNR in the past but have fallen short. The plans have traditionally met with opposition from outdoor clubs and environmental groups, which argue that breaking up the DNR would endanger outdoor recreation, increase costs to taxpayers and further weaken the state’s air and water quality protections.

“Those who (want to split the department) are not friends of conserving the environment,” said George Meyer, a former DNR secretary who now directs the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

The GOP proposal comes just three weeks after the DNR announced a major reorganization plan, which agency leaders said would make the department more “efficient” and help defend it from budget cuts. Walker is expected to include that reorganization plan in the state budget he introduces in February.

If the DNR is split up, Republicans will “have one agency they can feed and one they can starve,” former DNR secretary Scott Hassett told the State Journal. “They like to feed fish and wildlife, and starve environmental protection.”

Under Attorney General Brad Schimel, the state Justice Department has shrunk staffing levels in its environmental protection unit to the lowest level in 25 years.

The Wisconsin State Journal reports the unit had six attorneys last year compared to 10 as recently as 2008. Carl Sinderbrand, a lawyer who once worked in the environmental unit, says the staffing reduction may reflect the dwindling number of pollution cases the DNR has referred for legal action. Last year fines against polluters dropped to their lowest point since at least 1994.

The reason: Along with reductions in prosecutions for environmental violations handled by the DOJ, there are fewer DNR inspections being carried out due to agency staffing and budget cuts and a lack of follow-up by the DNR on violations that it does discover.

Under Walker and the state’s Republican leadership, the environment has been under constant attack, according to environmental groups. The moneyed interests, as represented by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, fossil fuel companies and the real-estate industry, have gradually gained the upper hand since Wisconsin came under one-party rule in 2011.