From my observation, DNR Secretary Preston Cole is an even-tempered and friendly guy. And from my experience, the relationship between the DNR secretary and the chair of the Natural Resources Board is usually cordial and cooperative.
So I knew something must be amiss when Cole publicly upbraided Frederick Prehn, the person illicitly occupying the chair, at the recent meeting of the Natural Resources Board. In no uncertain terms, Cole told Prehn, “You’re sitting in somebody else’s chair.”
The Natural Resources Board is a citizen body appointed by the governor that oversees the work of that agency and has the legal authority to approve rules and other actions of the DNR. Created in 1967, its seven members serve six-year staggered terms. The arrangement is specifically designed to provide continuity for resource policy in our state.
Here’s the rub. The term of Frederick Prehn, who was appointed to the board by defeated former Gov. Scott Walker, expired on May 1 of this year. Gov. Tony Evers appointed highly respected conservationist Sandra Dee Naas to a six-year term to replace Prehn. However, Prehn is refusing to leave the board, apparently with the connivance of Republican leaders in the Legislature. He claims he has the right to stay on the board, even though his term is over, based on a highly dubious interpretation of a 57-year-old Supreme Court decision. Fortunately, Attorney General Josh Kaul has now gone to court to enforce state law and give Prehn a much deserved boot off the Natural Resources Board.
The Republican ploy is consistent with their contempt for democracy. When the voters chose Evers, Republican leaders quickly convened a lame duck legislative session to undercut the will of the voters by changing the powers of the governor. Now they are again showing their disdain for the voters by trying to deny the rightfully elected governor the opportunity to have his appointees serve on the Natural Resources Board. Prehn claims that he can serve until his successor is confirmed by the Senate. However, the Republican controlled Senate has indicated that they have no intention of allowing a vote on confirmation.
The difference in qualifications to make environmental policy between the illicit squatter Prehn and his legally appointed replacement Naas is striking. To know why Prehn was appointed to the board, one only has to look at campaign finance records to see pages and pages of contributions to Republican candidates. His open checkbook to the GOP seems to be his major qualification — and it shows. As Natural Resources Board chair, he has ignored scientific experts and terribly bungled wolf policy in our state.
By contrast, Naas is a scientist who has 30 years of conservation experience as an outdoor educator, chair of the Bayfield County Conservation Congress and owner of an environmental business.
A dozen Wisconsin outdoor groups have joined together to call for Naas to be able to take her seat on the board without delay. There is, however, one organization that supports Prehn’s continued squatting on the board. That would be Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the major lobbyist for the state’s polluters. WMC has repeatedly and aggressively fought safeguards to protect our air and water. The fact that the polluters’ lobby is fighting to keep Prehn on the board tells you all you need to know about what is really going on.
Unfortunately, Prehn has shown a total disregard for sound management of our natural resources and for our American democracy. It’s time for the courts to act swiftly both to protect our clean air and water and to honor the will of the voters.
Spencer Black served for 26 years in the state Legislature. He was chair of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee and the Assembly Democratic leader. Since leaving the Legislature, Black has been vice president for conservation for the national Sierra Club and adjunct professor of planning at UW-Madison.
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