Twelve months ago, Tony Evers was sworn in as governor after waging a campaign that promised a strong commitment to conservation. So, one year in, how’s he doing?
The bottom line: Evers’ environmental record is very strong — but not perfect. It’s hard to overstate the obstacles the governor has faced. During eight years of Scott Walker, state government had largely abandoned our historic commitment to sound natural resource management. Under Walker, environmental protection funding in Wisconsin declined by more than any other state. Also, Evers has faced a Republican Legislature that has been uncooperative, to put it mildly.
Nonetheless, Gov. Evers has started to make significant progress, especially in the areas of water quality and addressing the climate crisis. There is a totally different tone and approach coming from the governor’s office these days. Wisconsin’ proud conservation legacy is being restored. Tony Evers has emphasized the importance of science and has appointed leaders at Department of Natural Resources who prioritize natural resource protection, not corporate handouts, and who will enforce anti-pollution laws.
Evers started his term by proclaiming 2019 “The Year of Clean Drinking Water” and introduced a budget with substantial funding for addressing water quality programs, including increases for lead pipe replacement and county conservation agents. Unfortunately, the Republican Legislature cut much of those funding proposals — but there is some hope that they will be more supportive in 2020 with an election looming. Evers' administration is moving ahead on rules to better regulate nitrates and PFAS pollution.
Evers is reinvigorating state efforts to address the climate crisis. This is in sharp contrast to the Walker years, when state websites were ordered to delete scientific references to global warming. The governor has appointed a top-notch Climate Change Task Force to rally support for state action, established a new Office of Science and Sustainability, proclaimed a goal of making our state’s electricity 100% carbon-free by 2050 and joined the U.S. Climate Alliance.
There’s been a big change at the DNR. Although a well-functioning DNR is essential for protection of our natural resources, its internal workings rarely get much public attention. DNR staffers are the people who implement environmental policy and ensure compliance with conservation and pollution laws. Under Walker, the agency was understaffed and underfunded and many experienced DNR employees left, often because of their disappointment in an agency that had strayed from its mission to protect our outdoors. That’s changing big-time. Walker appointed an outspoken DNR critic, with no conservation experience, as the agency's secretary. In contrast, Evers appointed Preston Cole, a lifelong environmental professional. One example of the change: Before Cole, only 50% of environmental enforcement positions were filled. Now, it’s 100%.
Evers’ environmental record, as good as it has been, has had its disappointments. He appointed a utility lawyer to lead the Public Service Commission, an agency whose decisions have far-reaching environmental consequences. One of her first acts was to approve an unnecessary transmission line that will scar the Driftless area.
His action on the Stewardship Fund has been underwhelming so far. The fund, the state’s land conservation program, has been severely cut over the last eight years. Evers’ budget reauthorized the fund for only two more years (instead of the usual 10) and at a reduced and inadequate funding level. However, he’ll likely appoint a task force to develop recommendations for a stronger Stewardship Fund in the next budget.
Overall, those of us who campaigned for Tony Evers for governor based on his environmental commitment can be happy with his first year in office. I’m optimistic that at the end of next year, we’ll be even happier.
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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