Gov. Scott Walker’s budget would make far-reaching changes to the Department of Natural Resources by giving him more direct control over environmental regulations, cutting 66 agency positions and halting purchases of land for conservation until 2028.
The proposed 2015-17 budget announced Tuesday night would strip the Natural Resources Board of its authority and make it an advisory panel, reduce the DNR Bureau of Science Services, eliminate educator positions and assume authority for the citizen boards responsible for preventing development from harming the scenic lower Wisconsin River and the Kickapoo Valley.
The changes “are part of the Governor’s proposal to streamline state government services and make government more efficient, more effective, and more accountable,” said spokeswoman Laurel Patrick.
However, others said the changes would further weaken the DNR’s ability to prevent pollution and manage recreational resources.
“That’s terrible,” former DNR secretary George Meyer said of removing the Natural Resources Board’s authority. “It just politicizes natural resources management.
“The Natural Resources Board allows citizens who don’t otherwise have political clout and don’t finance political campaigns to have a vehicle to bring forward their ideas.”
A budget summary from the governor’s office said making the board advisory would “strengthen the leadership” of the agency.
The DNR secretary and other top officials are appointed by the governor, but the board makes agency policy. Board members are appointed to six-year terms by the governor.
Changes began in 1995
The board hired and fired DNR secretaries until 1995, when then-Gov. Tommy Thompson persuaded the Legislature to make the top agency post a cabinet position.
Thompson also wanted to make the board advisory, but the Legislature balked.
William Bruins, who was appointed to the board four years ago by Walker, said he hadn’t seen the board reject many recommendations from agency administrators.
“I don’t see any major problems,” Bruins said. “I think we work really well together with the administration.”
The board recently instructed DNR staff to conduct a strategic analysis of frac sand mining at the request of citizens who signed a petition sponsored by the Madison-based Midwest Environmental Advocates, a nonprofit that frequently takes the agency to court over water pollution problems it hasn’t solved.
Taking away the power of the board and reducing agency science staff will weaken the DNR’s ability to protect air and water quality while allowing wildlife habitat and natural areas to be degraded, said Kimberlee Wright, Midwest Environmental Advocates director.
“To be stealing both health and opportunity from future generations when we already know better is just reprehensible,” Wright said. “There’s not enough staff to do the work now.”
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She said poor environmental regulation harms people like the Kewaunee County residents who say their wells have been rendered unusable because of poor regulation of large farms.
“I’ve seen people who can’t drink the water told that ‘We just don’t have the resources; we just don’t have the staff,’ ” Wright said.
Natural Resources Board chairman Preston Cole said he was surprised to hear of the plan to make the panel advisory.
“All I can say is that it’s interesting,” Cole said.
“I’ll have to talk to the folks in the administration and find out what is intended. We are one of the few boards that people are welcome to come to voice their concerns.”
A budget summary issued by the governor’s office said 66 DNR positions “no longer serve the core mission of the agency.”
A spokesman said some of the positions were in the science division and others were educators.
The science bureau provides data and research to guide decisions on managing natural resources. The spokesman said 39 of the jobs are vacant.
Meyer, who is executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federal, said science-based decisions are crucially important.
Land purchase debt
While Meyer said he was sympathetic to concerns about borrowing costs of the conservation land program, he said putting a hold on purchases would mean the state will miss out on many properties for parks and open space that only become available once a generation.
But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, predicted support for placing land purchases on hold.
“A lot of members of the caucus will say the stewardship program is something that certainly will remain in check in this type of environment with concerns about the level of borrowing,” Fitzgerald said.
The budget would stop stewardship fund land purchases until debt payments are no more than one-eighth of total expenditures since the program began.
Patrick said debt service on money borrowed for stewardship purchases was about $83 million annually, or 70 percent of DNR’s revenue from state taxes.