Nearly five years of one-party Republican rule has significantly altered the way Wisconsin protects its bounty of forests, lakes, streams and other natural resources, and more change may be on the way as the Department of Natural Resources reassesses the work its employees do.
In the 2010 campaign season that brought Gov. Scott Walker and a Republican Legislature to power, he promised to tame an “out of control” DNR, complaining that regulators and scientists had slowed job growth and failed to keep hunters happy.
Since then, budget cuts, loosening of pollution rules and changes in wildlife management have been no secret, but elected officials have also made less-noticed changes reducing the role of DNR professionals and scientists in decision-making.
The highest-profile move was a highly controversial 2013 state law written by a mining company to loosen environmental rules for iron mines. But other new laws:
- Make it easier to destroy wetlands if new ones are established, although critics say artificial wetlands may not adequately protect groundwater and wildlife.
- Block homeowners’ ability to challenge large farms and frac sand mines when they believe a cluster of their high-capacity wells is drying up lakes, streams or drinking water.
- Seek federal approval to extend by up to 20 years the deadlines for full compliance with limits on phosphorus discharges that promote weed and algae growth in lakes and streams.
- Slow purchases of conservation lands while mandating land sales and banning local zoning rules that are more limiting than state standards for shoreline development.
Meanwhile, the agency has:
- Insisted it can’t legally limit the expansion of mega farms despite an order to do so from a judge who said ”massive regulatory failure” had tainted Kewaunee County drinking water.
- Reduced the number of pollution violations it sends to state lawyers for court action and the number of wildlife citations it issues.
- Delayed for years studying how small dust particles from the frac sand industry affect the health of neighboring residents.
- Written emergency rules to decrease analysis of potential environmental harm and public hearings on sources of pollution when reviews of similar projects have been done.
- Allowed deer herd growth favored by hunters in areas with chronic wasting disease despite the advice of some scientists who say less deer density will slow the disease’s spread.
- Received warnings from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that air and water quality protections are inadequate or out of date.
For more than a decade, the DNR workforce has been dwindling — even under Walker’s Democratic predecessor — and budget cuts enacted this summer remove 92 more employee positions, 18 of them senior scientists whose research helped guide the work of agency program managers.
“Governor Walker believes it’s possible to protect our clean air, clean land, and clean water while enacting policies that improve our business climate and spur economic growth,” Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said in a statement.
But critics say Wisconsin’s natural resources are increasingly at risk as government moves away from a conservation tradition dating back to the 1920s, when academics and other citizens were placed in charge of restoring forests and wildlife that had been plundered by commercial interests while politicians looked the other way.
“The real issue is whether you are going to have a Department of Natural Resources that protects natural resources or if you are going to have an agency that protects politicians and campaign contributions,” said Spencer Black, vice president of the national Sierra Club and a former Democratic lawmaker from Madison.
Governor, Legislature flex their muscles
Black and others, including two former DNR secretaries, said changes happening now can be traced back to a 1995 state law that made the agency’s top administrator an appointee of the governor instead of a citizens board. No Wisconsin governor put that power to use the way Walker has, Black said.
“Now you have a strong governor who doesn’t care about natural resources protection,” said Black, who was a member of the state Assembly for 26 years. “So you have what was created in 1995 coming to pass, and it’s just a quantum change, it’s a qualitative change.”
Others pointed to the role of the Legislature and a 2011 law giving the governor and lawmakers much greater control of administrative rules that are written by DNR professionals and scientists to spell out details of how changes in law are put into action.
Elected officials are accountable to voters and should have more influence over administrative rules, which have the power of law, said Scott Manley, chief lobbyist for the state’s most powerful business group.
Manley said the governor and Legislature have enacted most of the laws pushed for by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, but he disputed assertions that major changes have taken place.
A single rule on phosphorus pollution written by DNR employees during the administration of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle threatened to have greater impact — in terms of costs to businesses — than all the changes under Walker, Manley said.
“Does anybody see these evil lawmakers who are controlled by corporations issuing (emission) permits? The answer is no,” Manley said. “You’ve got some folks who were part of the Doyle administration who, for political reasons, want to criticize Gov. Walker.”
But Kimberlee Wright, a former DNR employee who now directs a nonprofit that regularly sues the DNR over what it sees as lax environmental protection, said the political influence has shifted policy toward short-term gains for business and away from long-term protection of resources for future generations.
“You’re talking about the discharge of poison into the environment, and that’s the ultimate issue when you are balancing the interests of people today and future generations,” said Wright, director of Midwest Environmental Advocates.
DNR mission under review
In July, DNR officials reorganized internal management and began a yearlong study that will result “in staffing and system changes over the next year as we assess our core priorities,” said Deputy Secretary Kurt Thiede.
Agency spokesman Jim Dick said the review of employee “core work functions” was unrelated to this summer’s budget cuts, which raised questions about the DNR’s direction when Walker said the 18 senior scientists — all funded by federal dollars and program revenue — were cut because they weren’t needed for the department’s “core mission.” Lawmakers complained about “controversial” DNR research on wildlife, mining and climate change.
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Patrick, Dick and Thiede didn’t respond directly when asked to describe unneeded research the scientists did.
Walker’s DNR secretary is Cathy Stepp, a former Republican state senator and critic of the agency. Pat Stevens, former environmental director for WMC, was placed in charge of air and waste regulation. Water quality protection was added to his division in the reorganization.
Stepp declined interview requests, but in August she said that while protecting researchers from political pressure is key, senior scientist positions were being shed because the DNR Bureau of Science Services had run afoul of elected officials.
“We want to make sure that research that’s going on is answering the questions our regulators on the ground have or our biologists on the ground have or our user groups and interested citizens have,” Stepp said in an interview with WisconsinEye. “That hasn’t been the case in the past.
“We’ve seen a pretty sound response from the Legislature during this last budget process on some things that they saw that happened historically in that particular area of the department that they were unhappy about, and they wanted to send a message to us, (which) is, you know, ‘Get your researchers in better line with what their constituents are telling them, the legislators,’ and we’re going to do that.”
Stepp said an example was a science bureau compilation of scientific literature on environmental effects of mines while a controversial iron mine was being developed in 2014.
Political influence on agency
Political pressure on DNR employees is nothing new, but it gained potential potency when the hiring and firing of the department secretary was taken out of the hands of the Natural Resources Board, said George Meyer, who was appointed secretary by the state Natural Resources Board in 1993 and reappointed by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson after the law changed in 1995.
The board’s seven members are appointed by the governor to staggered terms and they can’t be removed, so it insulates the secretary from political influence, said Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
With support of the business lobby, Walker this year proposed eliminating the NRB, which still has authority over many agency actions, but the Legislature balked.
An independent secretary can protect the integrity of scientific research that guides the agency, Meyer said. After solid research is in hand, policymakers can choose how much weight to give it compared to constituents’ demands, Meyer said.
“But you have to start out knowing the scientific findings, otherwise you’ll never get to the right place,” he said.
Michael Cain worked 34 years as a DNR attorney before retiring in 2010, and he said he reviewed countless proposals, many of them championed by elected officials, for building golf courses or commercial buildings on wetlands and lake beds.
In almost every case, a department administrator would help him explain to the politician and the developer when the law wouldn’t permit the project.
Cain said that after the law changed in 1995, and again after Doyle was elected in 2002, more flawed proposals seemed to turn up on his desk.
Scott Hassett, who was appointed DNR secretary by Doyle in 2003, said Cain didn’t realize how many environmentally unsound proposals never made it past the secretary’s office. The DNR is constantly pressured by businesses, landowners, local governments and environmental groups, he said.
Businesses seek pollution permits, permission to build on protected land, and leniency on rules violations, Hassett said.
“You are subject to a governor’s ideas on things,” Hassett said. “The governor’s office or the legislators or local governments say ‘Why can’t this guy get a permit?’ Or ‘Why don’t you back off on this?’ ”
Hassett resigned abruptly in 2007 after clashing with Doyle’s office over the costly clean-up of a coal-fired heating plant operated by the state. A Doyle spokesman at the time denied Hassett was forced out, and in an interview last week Hassett wouldn’t discuss the episode in detail.
However, he acknowledged the governor’s office seemed to feel he was less in tune with their desires than those of DNR staff.
“I think there was concern that I was going native,” said Hassett, now a Madison-based attorney.
Thompson agreed that it was normal for businesses to pressure the DNR, adding that lawmakers were a major conduit.
“There’s pressure in everything,” Thompson said. “That’s why you have to elect strong governors.”
Dick, the current DNR spokesman, said Walker’s office has taken a hands-off approach.
“Neither the governor nor anyone on his staff have tried to influence a decision or outcome before the DNR,” Dick said in a statement. “This agency makes decisions based on sound science, common sense and the authority given to us by state law. Politics or political contributions play no role in our decision making.”