Commentary: Reflections on the DNR’s ‘Do Not Respond’ Blacklist

By Nancy Utesch

Can you imagine anything more volatile within a government agency, our Department of Natural Resources, than a Do Not Respond blacklist of people, kept and updated since 2013?

The blacklist is a direct restriction on our rights to an open and transparent government, and access to public government documents and employees.

The blacklist, marked “Confidential,” included the name, email, address, phone, subject, and the “referral” who made the “request” for the blacklisting. My husband and I were “referred” from “the Secretary’s Office.” On the subject line of our listing, simply one word: CAFO. The list was marked as being updated “February 8, 2016.”

Yet Secretary Stepp claims no knowledge of the blacklist, in spite of her status as Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources. Three of the referrals came directly out of Stepp’s office, which lends no amount of credibility to Stepp’s position of denial. Stepp should step down, resign, or better yet, be removed from office.

Under Tommy Thompson’s reign the position of Secretary of the DNR became an appointed position by the Governor. Prior to Thompson’s intervention, the DNR Secretary was elected by the Natural Resource Board – a citizen board comprised of seven individuals from throughout the state. It’s long overdue that the Secretary of our Natural Resources be selected by the Natural Resources Board, not a political appointee of the Governor.

I have been surprised by the lack of media on the blacklist, the “who and why” part of the story. What were the “repetitive and abusive” behaviors the DNR cites citizens seeking social and environmental justice where they live? Citizen advocacy and questioning has become a threat to the DNR, an agency that spends months and months on their “internal messaging” – the party line that sends most “off the trail” in apathy, disgust, and confusion.

The DNR has let us know their limitations: “They don’t have enough manpower,” “They don’t have the money,” our concerns “are not a program priority,” and lastly, that we need “to go to the Legislature.”

If you haven’t found the proper exit door, you probably are in a dogged pursuit in the belief that government is to work for the people – all the people – even those who have taken upon the job of protecting the natural resources where they live. These citizen watchdogs of the community are the new wardens of the grassroots efforts of people believing that there is a better way where they live, despite not only the limitations and failures of agencies such as the DNR – but the DNR’s active pursuit in “collaborating” with industry-minded individuals. This collaboration supersedes the rights of the citizens and environment where they live.

If the DNR were simply defunct, that would be bad enough. The fact that it has partnered with polluters makes its conduct a direct threat to the wellbeing of our communities, and the air and water we all need to live, and live well.

The black stain of the “blacklist” is not ours, the 19 listed. The blacklist is a black eye to the current administration and the DNR, and is a blow to all citizenry that believes that government works for you, protects you, and operates on the premise of openness and transparency.

The shame of the blacklist is for all of us to share in Wisconsin.

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