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Retired Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wetland ecologist Pat Trochlell examines wild grasses in the sand along the Lake Michigan shoreline in Kohler-Andrae State Park. Photo taken Oct. 11, 2018.

Some inheritances are great, like when a rich relative leaves you millions (I can only imagine!).

Some are not so great, like when you are handed a mess to fix.

The not so great is what the new leaders at the state’s Department of Natural Resources have inherited after eight years of neglect (and worse) of our natural resources under the administration of Scott Walker. But we have a new governor and a new team in charge of the DNR and by all accounts, happier days are ahead for those of us who cherish our Wisconsin outdoors.

I recently stopped by to chat with the new DNR secretary, Preston Cole, and his assistant secretary, Todd Ambs. I came away with sympathy for them because of the tough challenges they face. More importantly, I felt optimistic that they are up to the job.

Neither Cole nor Ambs is new to the DNR. Cole served for 10 years on the Natural Resources Board and Ambs, before Walker, headed up the Water Division. What is strikingly new, compared to the DNR leadership under Walker, is their commitment to rely on science as they address pressing environmental issues.

The new team would have a solid basis to complain about the failures of the past eight years, but in my conversations with them their focus was strictly forward-looking, honoring the mission of the DNR to be good stewards of our state’s environment.

Cole identified several matters on his list of concerns. At the top are water-quality problems across the state. Threats to water quality include tainted groundwater, lead pipes in municipal water systems, and chemical contaminants like PFAs. Ambs noted: “We’re in a situation now where tens of thousands of people can’t turn on the tap and feel confident that they are drinking clean water.”

Also high on their agenda is the persistent presence of chronic wasting disease in the state’s deer population. Cole said their aim is “to mitigate CWD impacts” with earlier testing for the disease and better use of the research capabilities of the university.

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Other issues highlighted by Cole and Ambs were renewal and expansion of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, dealing with impacts of a changing climate due to global warming, and remediation of contaminated sites known as brownfields.

Both Cole and Ambs emphasized that key to their decision-making will be a reliance on science. The previous administration had decimated the Science Bureau at the department and often ignored the advice of scientists. We can expect a significant change from the new leaders. They have already proposed adding back scientists to the department and establishing a high-level “science and technology officer” to ensure that science is central to decision-making. One early sign of this commitment, modest but telling, is the restoration of scientifically accurate information about climate disruption to the agency’s website. Walker’s appointees had censored those facts.

Cole emphasized his respect for the DNR staff, many of whom felt stifled during the past eight years. Numerous DNR staffers had told me about the steady decline in morale under Walker’s appointees, but there’s been a decided uptick in their perspective recently. A longtime DNR employee explained: “We’re not here just for the paycheck. We’re here because we believe in the mission of the agency.” Another told me: “We felt we have been asked to rubber stamp political decisions. Now, we’re hopeful that we can use our knowledge, experience and science to make good decisions about our natural resources.” 

Spencer Black served for 26 years in the Legislature, including chair of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee. Since then, Black has been vice president for conservation for the national Sierra Club and adjunct professor at UW-Madison.