Calling for a return to a more independent state Department of Natural Resources, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers said he would return the power to appoint the DNR secretary to the Natural Resources Board.
The board appointed DNR secretaries from the 1920s until the law changed in 1995 to make the position a political appointment by the governor.
Evers, the state schools superintendent, said the DNR has failed to safeguard air and waterways from pollution under Gov. Scott Walker’s administration.
“Only an independent DNR secretary can restore the DNR’s mission of serving the needs of all Wisconsin citizens, not just the big corporations,” Evers said in a statement.
Walker’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In 1995, then-Gov. Tommy Thompson used the state budget to give himself the power to appoint the DNR secretary and place that person in his cabinet. District administrators in the agency were also added to the list of gubernatorial appointees.
The political connection of the DNR has not gone unopposed. In several legislative sessions in the 2000s, former Assemblyman Spencer Black, D-Madison, sponsored bills to return appointment power to the Natural Resources Board, but even Democrats rejected the proposal.
“Decisions about our outdoors should be based on science, not politics,” Black said in a statement with Evers. “As we are learning the hard way, once our water or land is polluted, repairing the damage is difficult and expensive at best and often just impossible.”
Wisconsin Wildlife Federation Executive Director George Meyer was the DNR secretary when the law changed to make the position a gubernatorial appointment. He said letting the Natural Resources Board appoint the secretary gives that person a “bit of a buffer” against political agendas.
“It gives the DNR secretary the ability to make tough decisions about environmental protection without political influence,” Meyer said.
Even if the Natural Resources Board regained appointment authority, Meyer said, the secretary’s position would still be affected by politics since the board members are appointed by the governor.
Under Walker’s administration, the DNR has reduced the number of pollution violations it sends for court action and the number of wildlife citations it issues and received warnings from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the air and water quality protections are inadequate.
Supporters of gubernatorial appointment for the DNR say that letting the governor choose the head of the agency creates more environmental accountability for the governor.