DNR Board Changes Opposed

Among the non-fiscal, policy-changing items inserted into Gov. Walker’s proposed 2015-17 state budget is one that has raised the ire of sportsmen and conservationists of every political stripe.

In a move that his office says would strengthen leadership in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Walker has proposed removing all policy-making authority from the seven-member Natural Resources Board. The board would serve as an advisory panel to the appointed DNR secretary, who would have final decision on policies.

The proposed change comes after the Natural Resources Board asked the DNR to conduct an overdue analysis on the health and environmental impacts of frac sand mining.

“This proposed change would take the policy-making authority from the public arena to the political arena,” Wisconsin Conservation Congress Chair Rob Bohmann wrote in a Feb. 13 letter to Walker and state legislators. “Giving the policy-making authority solely to the department secretary would potentially allow for important natural resource decisions to be made behind closed doors without any public vetting.”

Bohmann also mentioned that Wisconsin is the envy of the nation because of its “unique system to keep conservation and politics separate by creating an independent board, beholden to no one. The Natural Resources Board has successfully operated with its policy-making authority uninterrupted for the past 88 years, during which time Wisconsin has continuously been a national leader in environmental protection and wildlife conservation efforts.”

Bohmann’s thoughts on the proposal were echoed by David Tupa, chair of the five-member Door County delegation of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress.

“In Wisconsin’s historical past, our forefathers had the wisdom to create a non-political DNR Board for making science-based resource management decisions and they understood the value of allowing the DNR Board to select our DNR Secretary based on his/her natural resource knowledge, understanding and qualifications to make sound, science-based resource management decisions in the best interest of the resource for current and future generations. Maybe our governor believes that these important decisions should be made by him, or by somebody that he appointed, but I do not,” Tupa said.

“As clearly stated in Robert Bohmann’s letter, Wisconsin has a very long history of making sound, scientific-based resource management decisions, with input from our concerned citizens,” Tupa continued. “Through the careful analysis by Wisconsin Conservation Congress delegates that serve on WCC Study Committees, these experts within the WCC advise the DNR Board and the DNR Secretary to make sound, science-based decisions. This had been the practice before our current governor took office. We have already lost the DNR Secretary position to the governor’s appointment and now he is proposing to reduce the authority of the DNR Board to a simple advisory body to his DNR appointed secretary. Perhaps our governor believes he has greater vision and more wisdom than our founding fathers who established our current model of resource management, but I highly doubt that.

“Our model of conservation heritage and resource management through public input, WCC review and recommendation to the NRB, and DNR Secretary continues to be the envy of every state in our nation,” Tupa said. “Our historic process has stood the test of time for more than 80 years.”

Tupa also took issue with Walker’s proposal to eliminate 66 DNR positions “which no longer serve the core mission of the department.” More than a quarter of those positions are in the Bureau of Scientific Services, which performs research on environmental regulation and wildlife management policy.

“Removing these experts in the field of resource management would be the equivalent of removing the most highly trained doctors from a hospital and expecting to get the same quality medical attention. Our governor may think this is a good idea, but I do not,” Tupa said.

The proposal to freeze the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program through 2028 is also a shortsighted move on the governor’s part, Tupa said.

“Stewardship funds are vital to the function of organizations like the Door County Land Trust, Ridges Sanctuary, and the DNR to purchase land for public recreation and habitat preservation,” he said. “Without access to these funds, it is highly unlikely that these organizations will be able to implement any new habitat preservation projects or set aside any new public lands for the next 13 years.”

Mike Grimm of The Nature Conservancy agreed.

“It is such a unique program in this country. Few other states have this kind of program that provides for the public good,” he said. “It’s just a great Wisconsin program. We should be proud of it and do whatever we can to maintain the program because you can always pay the money back but you can’t make more land.”