As Preston Cole takes command as secretary of Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, he inherits an agency sloppily swept of staff, science, heritage and morale for eight years by the previous administration’s whim and indifference.
Cole had a front-row seat for the purging of science, education, transparency and enforcement powers from a once-proud agency. After all, he was appointed to the DNR’s seven-citizen governing body — the Natural Resources Board — in 2007 by Gov. Jim Doyle and reappointed in 2013 by Gov. Scott Walker.
Cole’s appointment by Gov. Tony Evers to run the DNR won enthusiastic nonpartisan praise the past month, even though Cole, a degreed forester, mostly kept his head below the sandbags during his 10 years in the DNR Board’s trenches. His supporters assure us he’s a strategic thinker, more a diplomat who binds partisans’ wounds than an idealist who sparks futile conflicts.
Either way, Cole’s conservation legacy will be written in the months and years ahead as he works to manage and protect the public’s natural resources, which were often left to chance or sacrifice by his predecessors, Cathy Stepp and Dan Meyer.
To help assess Cole’s most pressing challenges, I polled several state conservation leaders and organizations. Cole’s office didn’t respond to my poll, presumably because he’s overwhelmed carrying out Evers’ pledge to restore science to Wisconsin’s natural-resource policies. One must respect noble focus.
With that, let’s review Cole’s challenges, according to some top conservationists.
George Meyer, former DNR secretary; executive director, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation:
“Preston must first re-establish with DNR employees that the agency will be run by professional, science-based natural-resource management. The DNR and its employees must be transparent and available to the public. That means employees must be able to comment publicly, in a professional manner, on matters within their expertise.
“Second, he should reauthorize the DNR to become involved and testify before the Legislature on proposed legislation affecting the state’s natural resources. He must also propose legislation addressing major issues such as CWD and water. That includes ground- and surface-water contamination and depletion.
“Third, DNR staffing and funding have been cut to the bone. Preston should seek funding for frontline staffing, land management and land acquisition. That requires license- and stamp-fee increases, which sportsmen support; and reauthorizing the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund.
“Doing these three tasks would go far in re-establishing the DNR’s credibility and stature with Wisconsin citizens, and with natural-resource professionals nationwide.”
Larry Bonde, chairman, Wisconsin Conservation Congress:
“Preston’s biggest challenge will be working with the Republican Legislature. I’m a conservative voter, but politics are so polarizing that it’s an extreme challenge for anything from the opposite party to see the light of day. Hunting, fishing and trapping aren’t immune from those politics.
“Second, he shouldn’t be too quick to jump ship on changes the DNR made the past eight years. He must evaluate all those sweeping changes with an open mind, and engage us outside partners to see what’s truly working.
“Third, budget issues are huge. Federal funding from Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson excise taxes plugged lots of holes the past eight years. Those funds aren’t there now, given big declines in ammo and firearm sales the past two years.”
Dave Clausen, Amery, former chairman, Natural Resources Board:
“Preston’s biggest challenge will be restoring a culture of excellence in environmental protection through openness and transparency.
“Second, he must enforce the Clean Water Act, and seriously address the 75 deficiencies identified in the EPA’s July 2011 letter. The previous administration claimed they fixed some of those, but that’s open to question.
“Third, he must address the CWD crisis through policies and actions that actually have some impact on chronic wasting disease. That also means managing deer as one part of the ecosystem, not as a separate species, but that would fail and likely end his career.”
Jennifer Giegerich, government affairs director, Wisconsin Conservation Voters:
“First, Wisconsinites deserve safe, clean drinking water, and this administration must protect it. The previous administration failed to take timely, aggressive action to address drinking-water pollution. It also undermined DNR staff when they attempted to advance enforcement cases. The result is our drinking-water crisis. Secretary Cole should address drinking-water threats caused by manure pollution, lead pipes, and emerging contaminants such as toxins from firefighting foam.
“Second, Wisconsin should reclaim its leadership role on climate-change science. Secretary Cole should acknowledge the impacts of climate change, and work with other state agencies to reduce Wisconsin’s dependence on fossil fuels. He should help develop strategies to better adapt to the effects higher temperatures are having on Wisconsin, such as more flooding, lower crop harvests, more toxic algae in lakes, and more invasive species on our lands and in our waters.
“Third, Secretary Cole should recommit to science-based natural-resource management, and enforce environmental protections openly and transparently. Wisconsin citizens deserve to know the DNR is managing our air, water, land and wildlife in the public’s best interest.”
Erin O’Brien, policy programs director, Wisconsin Wetlands Association:
“Wisconsin must expand its approach to conserving wetlands, and think more about how wetlands affect our overall landscape. Protecting, enhancing and restoring healthy wetland landscapes reduces flooding, improves cold-water fisheries, and replenishes groundwater, to name just three vital benefits.
“Secretary Cole’s proactive strategies could include:
Supporting and advancing wetland science;
Emphasizing a watershed approach to managing water and restoring healthy connections between wetlands, surface water and groundwater;
Providing technical support and incentives to help communities and landowners protect, restore and care for wetlands to solve local problems.”
That’s it. As you can see, Cole’s — and Wisconsin’s — natural-resources challenges are daunting. Fortunately, our conservation leaders appear unanimous in believing Cole is the best person to tackle those tasks.
We’ll learn soon how well he bears those burdens.