Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to do away with the subscriber-supported Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine fits a pattern that included suppressing articles on climate science and endangered species that started after Republicans took over state government, the magazine’s former editor said Monday.
Meanwhile, two former Department of Natural Resources secretaries said eliminating the magazine would undermine volunteer conservation groups and public understanding of DNR programs in ways that will harm the environment over time.
The bimonthly magazine would be shuttered as part of Walker’s 2017-19 state budget plan. One reason the proposal is drawing criticism is that it wouldn’t save any tax dollars.
The nearly 100-year-old publication is supported entirely by its 88,000 subscribers.
Spokesmen for Walker and for the DNR on Monday defended the proposal by saying the DNR must become more efficient and narrowly focused, and government shouldn’t be in the publishing business.
They denied that closing down the magazine was evidence of an anti-science agenda despite previous budget cuts targeting DNR scientists and educators, a climate-related gag order at a state agency, and the removal of climate science pages from the websites of the DNR and the state Public Service Commission.
The magazine covers hunting, fishing and the science behind the DNR’s work and the efforts of volunteer conservation groups. When the state began publishing it in 1919, it was called The Wisconsin Conservationist.
After Walker took office in 2011, his appointees and other top managers at the DNR insisted on seeing every article before publication, said Natasha Kassulke, who left the DNR last summer after 15 years, including five editing the magazine.
The scrutiny grew tighter after the magazine carried a special section on climate change produced by the UW-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, Kassulke said.
DNR managers spiked an article on how climate change affects Wisconsin mammals, as well as a piece on an endangered species whose primary habitat was around the proposed site for a controversial iron mine that was being promoted by Walker and GOP lawmakers, she said.
“I sort of got the message to stop even trying,” said Kassulke, a former Wisconsin State Journal reporter who now works for UW-Madison.
Kassulke said employees in the DNR communications office were told not to use terms like “climate change” and “global warming” when writing for publication. However, the term “our changing climate” was deemed acceptable, she said.
‘Not part of core mission’
Walker’s spokesman denied cutting the magazine was part of an anti-science, anti-environment agenda.
“That’s a ridiculous claim,” spokesman Tom Evenson said in a statement. “The DNR is realigning to become more efficient and effective. This magazine is not a part of the DNR’s core mission. It is not the government’s role to produce magazines that duplicate what is available in the private market.”
DNR spokesman Jim Dick denied that DNR managers have suppressed certain topics in the DNR magazine. He listed 12 recent articles that “deal with some sort of science, environment or environmental education topics.” The articles covered geology, invasive species, a summer program for tribal youth, birds, volunteers who monitor water quality, and more.
Under a recent reorganization aimed at coping with about two decades of budget cuts, DNR employees no longer have time to write for the magazine, Dick said.
But former DNR secretary George Meyer scoffed at the notion that the DNR’s 2,500 employees don’t have time to write occasional articles about their research and their work.
“Some of these (DNR) programs probably write one article a year,” said Meyer, who now directs the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, adding that many of the articles are contributed by writers outside the department.
“I really strongly disagree that public education isn’t part of their core functions,” Meyer added.
The magazine plays a big role in recruiting volunteers who help DNR scientists count wildlife, monitor the quality of water in streams and lakes, and raise money for state parks and other department operations, said another former DNR secretary, Scott Hassett.
Magazine fills niche
Hassett said the magazine fills an important niche that hunting and fishing journals don’t touch. Getting rid of it would make it easier, however, for Republican elected officials to continue cutting DNR staff and budget, he said.
“You have these legislators beating up the agency who don’t know what the agency does, or they are playing on public ignorance of what the agency does,” Hassett said.
Walker’s budget proposal said shutting down the magazine would save money not for taxpayers, but for individuals who buy conservation patron licenses. About 40,000 people each year buy the $165 licenses, which allow holders to hunt and fish, and include subscriptions to the magazine.
About $6 from each patron license went to the magazine in 2015. More recent figures weren’t available. Walker’s proposal states that purchasers of patron licenses would save $375,000 during the two-year budget period. The $6 would be subtracted from the patron license fee.
In addition to the license holders, the magazine has roughly 48,000 individual subscribers who pay $8.97 a year for six issues.
A 2014-15 DNR survey of 660 patron license holders found that 63 percent said they read most or all of the magazine, 25 percent read some of it and 13 percent read little or none. The survey had a margin of error of 3.7 percent.