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Months after climate change gag, Earth Day founder's daughter moves on

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Four months after her new Republican bosses drew national attention by ordering her not to discuss climate change on the job, the daughter of Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson announced she is resigning as Wisconsin’s public lands administrator.

Tia Nelson said Tuesday she has accepted a new science and education position that will be announced Wednesday by a Madison-based foundation.

Nelson was upbeat and said she saw silver linings in the adversity she and her staff have faced this year as one of her new Board of Commissioners of Public Lands (BCPL) members has questioned and criticized a multitude of details about the agency’s operations.

“It’s been challenging to work in an environment where you are regularly facing bizarre allegations,” Nelson said. “We maintained a sense of humor and developed some methods of stress relief in the office.”

Nelson said she was happy that as the controversy played out in national media, it drew renewed attention to her father’s legacy, but the ban was disconcerting.

“I do think the challenge that climate change poses to society must be discussed,” Nelson said.

Nelson has served as executive secretary to the BCPL since 2004. The board manages investments and state land that produces timber revenue, and it operates loan and grant funds that benefit local governments and public education.

In April, the board voted 2-1 to ban Nelson and her staff from on-the-job discussions or work related to climate change. The staff previously removed a reference to climate change from its website in response to complaints from a board member, state treasurer Matt Adamczyk.

“We had such a focus on environmental everything,” Adamczyk said after Nelson’s announcement, pointing as an example to legally mandated grants and scholarships one board fund provides to University of Wisconsin System environmental education programs. Adamczyk said he hopes the money in the future can be given to general education programs.

Adamczyk has said he believes it’s debatable whether climate change has been caused by people even though multiple studies in peer-reviewed journals show 97 percent of active climate scientists agree it is real and likely the result of human activity.

“On the (BCPL) website it said something about global warming is debatable no more,” Adamczyk said in April. “I said there’s debate about whether it’s human-caused.”

The board is made up of three elected officials: the state treasurer, attorney general and secretary of state. Adamczyk and fellow Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel were elected in November and took their places on the board in January alongside longtime member Doug La Follette, a Democrat.

Schimel voted with Adamczyk for the gag order. But on June 16, Schimel and La Follette formed the majority in another 2-1 vote that softened the ban. Staff are now forbidden only from on-the-job advocacy about climate science.

In March, Schimel and La Follette defeated an effort by Adamczyk to fire Nelson.

Before Tuesday’s board meeting, Schimel distributed a memorandum summarizing his conclusion that Nelson’s performance has been satisfactory, based on a June 30 review by the board. Schimel lauded Nelson for being responsive to board requests, building board assets and improving practices in spite of “considerable turmoil, which has resulted from election of new commissioners.”

At the July 7 board meeting, Schimel discussed some of his conclusions and La Follette praised Nelson, but Adamczyk said he disagreed with “a lot of different things,” according to minutes of the session.

Adamczyk said he sought to fire Nelson because former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, appointed her co-chairwoman of his global warming task force from 2007 to 2008. Schimel sided with La Follette in voting against her dismissal, saying that board members at the time approved her work on the task force.

Nelson said she waited to accept the new job until after the state budget was signed, leaving the BCPL’s authority intact and after she received a satisfactory job review with goals to carry the agency forward.

La Follette said the agency needs to have the same concerns foresters and loggers have about how climate change affects tree growth and other conditions. The board owns about 75,000 acres, including timber acreage.

In his short time on the board, Adamczyk has launched a barrage of questions and criticisms against Nelson, attacking her management of the nine-employee agency and its practices. La Follette said it amounted to harassment of Nelson. Adamczyk has said he has demanded information because he is a new board member and has time to learn about agency operations.

Before being hired by the board in 2004, Nelson worked for The Nature Conservancy for 17 years, including a short time directing the Washington-based group’s global climate change initiative.

Adamczyk, a former aide to Republican state legislators, has said his biggest concern with Nelson is that land owned by the board isn’t providing enough income.

Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson was a Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator from the state.


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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.

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