Tag Archives: Wisconsin Wildlife Federation

GOP legislator wants to dismantle Department of Natural Resources

State Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, is proposing to carve up Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, a move that sounds “interesting” to Gov. Scott Walker — but not to many hunters and anglers.

Announced Dec. 21, 2016, Jarchow’s plan would create two new agencies: a Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and a Department of Environmental Conservation. Other current DNR functions would be relocated to the Departments of Administrative Services, Agriculture and Tourism.

George Meyer, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation’s executive director, said the prominent statewide organization of 200 sports clubs strongly opposes the plan to spin off DNR functions into five disparate agencies.

Meyer, a former DNR secretary who served in the agency more than 30 years, told WiG Jarchow’s plan “came out of nowhere.” He said its proponents “seem to not understand how the DNR actually works and the effectiveness produced by its well-coordinated operations.” Outdoor sports enthusiasts depend on high-quality waters, forests and other resources and thus oppose any weakening of environmental protections, said Meyer.

Meyer added that replacing one agency with two would ultimately “cause significant cost increases” based on existing state government pay scales — even without adding staff. He anticipated that many functions would be duplicated and communication across agencies would become cumbersome or nonexistent. Meyer said higher costs would likely lead to more cuts in services and higher fees, including at state parks.

Additionally, Meyer said the Wisconsin Conservation Congress has historically opposed such proposals to split the DNR. The congress is the only statutory body in the state where citizens elect delegates to advise the Natural Resources Board and the Department of Natural Resources on how to responsibly manage Wisconsin’s natural resources for present and future generations.

Attempts to weaken environmental protection and defund state parks run counter to Wisconsin’s history, for at least a century, as a national trailblazer on conservation. Previous plans to revamp the DNR have been offered and rejected, most recently about a decade ago, according to Meyer.

WiG asked Jarchow about his goals for his DNR plan. He responded with this statement: “I agree with Gov. Walker that we should continue working and winning for Wisconsin. That means addressing difficult challenges like reigning (sic) in the DNR. I look forward to continuing this important discussion.”

Jarchow did not respond to questions about what, if any, support he has garnered for his plan.

Jarchow was among three legislators named to Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters’ “Dishonor Roll” for 2015–16 for “egregious actions,” along with Sens. Tom Tiffany and Frank Lasee. Jarchow told WPR Radio, “I see it as a badge of honor. I am proud to work hard to protect property rights on behalf of my constituents. Our pro-growth, common-sense reforms are working. If extremist, left-wing, radical, environmental groups don’t like it, too bad.”

Widespread concerns about plan

Concerns about the DNR proposal are coming from every corner of the state.

Former DNR Secretary Scott Hassett told the Wisconsin State Journal that, if the DNR is split up, Republicans would “have one agency they can feed and one they can starve. They like to feed fish and wildlife and starve environmental protection.”

Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, told WiG in an email that “further dismantling and diminishing the Department of Natural Resources is the wrong direction for Wisconsin. The state must restore our investment in our pristine lands and waters so that generations to come can enjoy the Wisconsin outdoors.” He noted that five former DNR secretaries were among many to “immediately speak out against unraveling an agency whose mission requires a comprehensive approach to best safeguard our future.”

Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, D-Milwaukee, thinks Jarchow’s plan would further jeopardize Wisconsin’s strong tradition as a leader in conservation and state parks. “The damage may not be felt immediately but, cut by cut, we are going down a very dark path in terms of our environmental security,” he told WiG.

Brostoff said Wisconsin’s tourism industry is “endangered when ecological oversight and enforcement is weakened.”

Green Bay resident Charles Frisk commented in a letter to the Capital Times: “Splitting of the DNR is an example of Walker’s ‘divide and conquer strategy,’ which he used effectively to pit union and nonunion workers against each other. It would finish off the DNR as a functioning agency.” Frisk noted that Walker’s administration has “already weakened the DNR by firing scientists, regulators and environmental educators, drastically cutting funding and naming a real estate executive (Cathy Stepp) as the DNR secretary.”

Parks threatened

Under Jarchow’s reorganization, Wisconsin’s 66 state parks — comprising almost 61,000 acres — would be managed by the Department of Tourism, which has no staff trained to manage parks and trails. The tourism department’s mission is “to market the state as the Midwest’s premier travel destination for fun” — a far cry from natural resource protection.

Beyond the state parks, the DNR’s Division of Forestry manages 471,000 acres in Wisconsin’s state forests. Under the Jarchow plan, the DNR’s forestry operations and northern state forests would be managed by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, while the Department of Tourism, again, would supervise southern state forests.

The fate of Wisconsin’s state parks already hangs in the balance after the Republican-led Legislature defunded them as of 2015. That has led to increases in fees for things like parks admission and camping.

Larson believes access to recreational opportunities within the state is at serious risk. “Wisconsin’s parks, forests and recreational areas are an important heritage meant for all to enjoy, not just those who can afford to pay more. Yet Walker’s DNR secretary is proposing more increases in fees at our state lands as well as selling the naming rights of different state park facilities to corporations,” Larson said.

Lewis Ledford, executive director of the National Association of State Parks Directors and a former parks director in North Carolina, said no state parks system has ever functioned long term on just a mix of user fees and corporate sponsorships without other public money. He was quoted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2015.

Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, which represents more than 38,000 members statewide, monitors all proposed policies relating to parks and public lands. WLCV’s spokesman Ryan Billingham said “thousands of state residents rely on parks as their only access” to outdoor recreation and respite. He thinks any new or proposed policies that “hamper access or reduce the quality of parks are completely out of touch with the needs of residents and what people value about the state’s rich heritage of conservation and public lands.”

DNR  spinoff plan in a nutshell

Wisconsin implemented its current integrated approach to natural-resource management in 1967, following intensive study by the Kellett Commission appointed by Republican Gov. Warren Knowles. That effort was chaired by William Kellett, retired president of Kimberly-Clark Paper Corporation in Neenah. Meyer said the commission had determined the Kellett Commission structure would be “more efficient and effective from a business standpoint.” He said “staff in virtually every state have been envious of how Wisconsin can easily bring together professionals within a single department” to address environmental issues.

That approach would be turned on its head by the Jarchow plan.

Existing Department of Natural Resources functions would be transferred to far-flung new and existing state agencies.

A Department of Fish and Wildlife would oversee wildlife and fisheries units, including fish and game enforcement. It also would manage state natural areas. The existing Natural Resources Board, composed of appointed citizens, would be renamed and have policy oversight over the agency.

A Department of Environmental Protection would manage environmental issues, such as drinking water, lake and river protections, air regulation and ground and watershed management. It would not have oversight by a citizens’ board.

State parks and trails and southern state forests would be transferred to the Department of Tourism.

The DNR’s forestry operations and the state’s northern forests would be managed by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

The Department of Administration would manage the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, which buys land for public use, as well as the legal services program now within the DNR.

Ex-DNR official: Walker’s reorganization of agency won’t even begin to address problems

A new reorganization plan by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources won’t fix numerous problems within the agency, according to a former official.

On Tuesday, the agency launched a reorganization to divide protection for water quality between two divisions and leave other environmental protection programs in a “business support” division. Officials didn’t return requests seeking clarification of the changes, but a document distributed to employees at a recent meeting said managers will analyze agency work to “help us allocate our limited staff and funding to accomplish the work that matters the most.”

George Meyer is a former secretary for the state Department of Natural Resources and now directs the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. He told the Wisconsin State Journal (http://bit.ly/1MUH9NL ) that a new organizational chart won’t even begin to address the agency’s worsening weaknesses.

“It’s cosmetic in terms of solving any problems,” he said of the reorganization. “The true problem is not enough staff to get the job done.”

Staffing at the agency has been reduced by 15 percent since the 2000-2001 budget. Over that same period, the need for environmental regulation in Wisconsin has increased due to an explosion of factory farms and industrial sand mining, both of which have been criticized for their impact on water and air quality.

Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature also are pressuring the state Department of Natural Resources to further reduce its staff.

The agency’s new management structure moves watershed management, which includes efforts to protect lakes and streams from runoff of manure and other pollutants, away from offices that are responsible for controlling waste water discharges from industry and protecting drinking and ground water.

“That’s not going to make the environment any better,” Meyer said. “It makes it harder to manage water quality programs when you have the watershed management off by itself. It makes coordination more difficult.”

Fisheries and wildlife management are being combined in a single division, with functions related to the timber industry and forest protection in a separate division, according to the memo.

On Thursday, agency officials are expected to begin meeting with workers at the Department of Natural Recourses’ facilities across the state.

Republicans nix Walker’s proposal to neuter the DNR

Wisconsin legislators removed a clause from Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget that would have taken all decision-making power away from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ board and given it to Walker’s administration.

The proposal to eliminate the DNR’s authority was one of many controversial non-budgetary policies that Walker folded into his budget, drawing opposition from both Republicans and Democrats. And it’s only one of many controversial Walker proposals likely to be stripped from the budget and voted on as stand-alone bills, which will make them more difficult to pass.

Critics see Walker’s effort to undermine the DNR as payback for its failure to rubber-stamp approvals for mining and other pollution-producing projects that would have benefitted his political donors. Walker has also called for eliminating 66 jobs, including a number of critical science positions, from the department.

Those staff eliminations remain in the budget.

The board, which is comprised of gubernatorial appointees, gives approval on policy proposals and regulations, such as hunting and fishing season frameworks and rules, as well as pollution limits. Before making such decisions, board members take extensive input from the public and stakeholders, particularly the Conservation Congress, a statewide group of hunters and anglers that has advised the board for years, according to The Associated Press.

Resolutions to preserve the board were introduced at the Conservation Congress’ annual spring meetings in a majority of Wisconsin counties Monday, said Kari Lee-Zimmermann, the DNR’s congress liaison. She said she was still tallying how many resolutions were approved.

The proposal to take all power away from the DNR sparked an outcry from board members and environmental groups, who complained the plan would render public input on environmental policy meaningless. They said Walker’s move was a blatant power grab.

Minority Democrats on the committee as well as one Republican — Sen. Luther Olsen of Ripon — pushed back against the plan, AP reported.

George Meyer, a former DNR secretary and current executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, praised the removal of the controversial clause. He said it preserves a government body that has established a tradition of giving citizens a chance to offer meaningful input on natural resources decisions.

“(Making the board advisory) was something that was opposed by virtually every sport group in the state of Wisconsin,” Meyer said.

“That’s great,” said Kim Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, said of the decision to remove the time from the budget. “People in Wisconsin are used to having a seat at the table and having their voice heard.”

Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment. Neither did the board’s chairman, Preston Cole, whose office said he was out of the country. DNR spokesman Bill Cosh declined to comment.

Iron mine is halted, but battle scars remain

In late 2011, Bill Williams stood on a ridge in the Penokee Hills, overlooking his company’s proposed site for a $1.5 billion iron ore mine. A reporter asked him about the environmental challenges posed by such a project.

Williams, president of Gogebic Taconite, batted the concern away. If a problem should arise, he told the reporter, “We have to engineer our way out of it.”

In late February, Williams announced that his company was dropping plans for the northern Wisconsin mine for now, saying the environmental challenges proved too great. That drew the mother of all “I told you sos” from Bob Jauch, a former Democratic state senator whose district included the mine site.

“I always had the impression that this company was not ready for this project,” Jauch says. He says it was focused more on the political process than on the challenges posed by the mine itself. And he rips Gov. Scott Walker and GOP lawmakers for having “genuflected to (the company) in blind obedience” to pass a mining bill that weakened state environmental protections.

Jauch says the bruising political battle over the mining bill “tore the community apart. It pitted neighbor versus neighbor. It destroyed relationships. And for what? All to come to the conclusion that this thing was never feasible in the first place.”

Tracy Hames, executive director of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, says it was abundantly apparent that the number and quality of wetlands on the proposed mine site would be practically impossible to mitigate, as required under state and federal law. “This is an unbelievably special place.”

George Meyer, former secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources, agrees the wetland challenges and potential complications due to Native American treaty rights likely doomed the project from the start. Meyer now heads the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, which did not oppose the mine but fought the changes to the mining law.

In March 2012, the Legislature’s effort to retool this law failed when then-Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, refused to go along. In that fall’s elections, Republicans increased their control of the state Senate to 18-15, enough to overcome Schultz’s opposition. The bill passed in March 2013.

The nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign tallied more than $15 million in donations to state political campaigns from pro-mining forces between 2010 and mid-2012. Groups on both sides spent more than 14,000 hours lobbying on the mining bills between 2011 and 2014. And Gogebic Taconite funneled $700,000 to Wisconsin Club for Growth, which helped Walker and other Republicans in the 2011 and 2012 recall elections.

Walker’s 2013 State of the State speech featured out-of-work union miners in hard hats representing some of the thousands of jobs he said the mine would bring. Now the promise of those jobs has evaporated, and the state is left with weakened protections.

“I think the credibility of the Legislature took a major hit, as did the governor,” Meyer says.

Williams told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that while his company had good relations with regulators under Walker, “there is probably still a subculture at the DNR, for lack of a better word, that is green.” He and Walker also blamed federal wetlands mitigation requirements; but these were in place earlier, when both were aglow with optimism about the mine.

Gogebic Taconite says it will continue to look into the possibility of a mine. And while declining prices for iron ore make that unlikely in the near future, Ashland County Board member Charles Ortman told the Ashland Daily Press this prospect is “never really gone for good, not until that pile of ore is gone.” He worries that there will now be a push to relax federal rules.

“I’m not a conspiracy theorist,” he said, “but we saw what happened here, and the same

man who made that happen is now running for president.”

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The Center produces the project in partnership with MapLight. The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.