As president of a statewide union representing approximately 1,000 Wisconsinites employed by the Department of Natural Resources, I hear from many natural resources professionals and scientists who have spent decades of their lives studying the science behind global climate change and other environmental issues affecting Wisconsin. I also regularly hear from Wisconsin citizens who value the state’s parks and other natural wonders who want to make sure their children and grandchildren have a planet to live on for generations to come.
These citizens and the staff I represent believe in the fundamental purpose of the DNR — in the words of the agency’s mission statement, “to protect and enhance our natural resources: our air, land and water; our wildlife, fish, and forests; and the ecosystems that sustain all life.” Accordingly, they’re upset by recent attacks on the environment and scientific understanding in the state budget and DNR policies.
Earlier this year, under Secretary Cathy Stepp’s leadership, the DNR removed all references to human-caused climate change on the agency’s website, claiming that climate change’s causes were merely being “debated.” DNR staff — the people our union represents, who still passionately believe in the DNR’s mission — are embarrassed by such changes.
And in this legislative session’s debate over the 2017-2019 budget, Gov. Walker is threatening to close the state’s nearly 100-year-old magazine, Wisconsin Natural Resources. The magazine is entirely supported by subscribers, so this wouldn’t save a cent of taxpayer money. Why shut down a successful magazine? It offended Walker and Stepp by publishing an issue on climate change’s effects on Wisconsin, among other things. Former editor Natasha Kassulke reports that its writers had already been told to nix words like “climate change” and “global warming.”
Axing the self-supporting magazine, in short, can only be justified if one seeks to dumb down state discourse.
But DNR staff want to see an agency that lives up to its mission. They, and the citizens of Wisconsin whom they serve, want a DNR that promotes science and citizen understanding, not the shabby politics of the moment.
How could the DNR make its mission a reality? An easy first step would be to restore science to the DNR website, starting by acknowledging human-caused climate change. Continuing to support the Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine in this year’s budget, at no taxpayer expense, would be a great second step.
But we can do more. Rather than cutting back on DNR staff positions and responsibilities to settle ideological scores, leadership should instead utilize the expertise of staff to help us adapt to climate change in Wisconsin. We could create an open and inclusive work group, using agency experts, University of Wisconsin researchers, and other intellectual leaders to enhance our common understanding of climate change and its effects on our state, ultimately proposing common sense responses to those effects.
All these actions would require a secretary who is a true environmental leader, as well as state political leaders willing to get out of the way and let the DNR’s dedicated staff do the work they have been trained to do. We don’t have that leadership now. But we could, and we should. Let’s allow DNR staff to fulfill the DNR’s mission, protecting state resources for all of us and our descendants. Call the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board, your legislator, and the governor and tell them if you agree.
Kim Kohlhaas is president of AFT-Wisconsin. AFT-Wisconsin is a labor union representing (among others) approximately 1,000 workers in the DNR, many of whom live in the Madison area.
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