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Secretary Cathy Stepp leaving DNR to join Donald Trump's EPA
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Secretary Cathy Stepp leaving DNR to join Donald Trump's EPA

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Cathy Stepp


Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp is leaving the agency to become deputy administrator in a regional office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

During Stepp's six-year tenure at DNR, fines for environmental violations dwindled, and the EPA twice stepped in to spur department action after residents complained of problems like manure-contaminated drinking water.

Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who appointed Stepp six years ago to instill a "chamber of commerce mentality" in the agency, said she used common sense while protecting the environment.

"Cathy is a strong, trusted reformer, who will serve the country well at the EPA," Walker said. "We will miss her optimism and energy at the DNR."

But conservationists said Stepp's DNR went too far to accommodate businesses.

"Of the seven DNR secretaries I have known, she clearly had the worst record in terms of standing up for protection of natural resources, whether it was water, air, or fish and wildlife," said George Meyer, a former DNR secretary who now directs the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

"Under Secretary Stepp's watch, public health and the rights of future generations to clean and abundant water have been seriously eroded," said Kimberlee Wright, who directs Midwest Environmental Advocates, a public interest law firm that has mounted legal challenges to DNR pollution permitting.

"Stepp failed to defend the agency's public mission against special-interest attacks and in doing so shifted the costs and burdens of protecting public health and our natural heritage to the very citizens most at risk from lax enforcement of our most basic environmental laws," Wright said.

Under Stepp, the EPA called the department's DNR effort to control fine-particle air pollution a failure, and the state's nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau found the agency failed to enforce its own standards for industrial and municipal water pollution 94 percent of the time.

In an email to staff and a press release, Stepp cited a department reorganization and "the customer service ethic we watched flourish in our staff" as accomplishments.

"We assist people and businesses in understanding the law so they can proceed with their plans and not be delayed by bureaucracy," she said.

Stepp announced her move in a Tuesday morning email to DNR staff, saying: "The White House presented me with an opportunity I couldn't ignore."

Trump campaign and climate change

Stepp appeared on stage at two Trump rallies in Wisconsin, but later she said she didn't know he viewed climate change as a Chinese hoax.

At the time, she told the Wisconsin State Journal she hoped a President Trump would make "business-based decisions," relax "strangling" regulations and allow Wisconsin to work with polluters to find creative solutions.

Last year, Stepp created a public uproar when she ordered information on the human activity largely responsible for global warming to be removed from the DNR website.

The former Republican state senator has said she believes there is substantial scientific debate about the conclusion of 97 percent of climate scientists that humans have caused global warming.

In her email to DNR staff, Stepp said she looked forward to new challenges at the federal level.

"I'm excited about the possibility of bringing some of the reforms we've been able to put in place here in Wisconsin to the national stage," Stepp said. "There is so much to share about what we have all done together."

'Tremendous black mark'

Stepp was an outspoken critic of the agency before she became its chief. She has lamented that changing the DNR was difficult compared to the ease with which she could adjust staffing at a McDonald's she once managed.

In a 2016 interview, she claimed progress in what she called her primary mission of forcing the agency to provide better customer service. Stepp said she exhorted employees to address the public with a pleasant tone and a full willingness to explain.

"Some people misconstrued that, at least early on, to infer that it means something that it doesn't mean: saying yes to every question you are asked, granting every permit that's applied for," Stepp said in the interview.

Under Stepp, enforcement of environmental violations has declined, vacant staff positions increased and both the EPA and the state audit bureau have pressed the DNR to remedy deficiencies in water quality programs. Citizen groups and the EPA have urged the department to do more about contaminated drinking water in areas with large animal feedlots.

While the audit bureau study covered a 10-year period extending before her tenure, some of the most serious problems were traced to job vacancy rates that grew worse under Stepp.

Similarly, 75 water program deficiencies the EPA cited in 2011 originated before Stepp's time, but her department missed a 2013 deadline for addressing them and many remain unresolved today.

When Barack Obama was president, the EPA twice intervened at Stepp's DNR in response to petitions from Wisconsin citizens and conservation groups over water pollution problems.

"That is a tremendous black mark on the legacy of her tenure here," said Meyer, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation director. "That really illustrated how different her approach was from the past."

Meyer said Stepp's new job in Trump's EPA was a reward for her record of lax environmental enforcement in Wisconsin.

"What really worries me is that if the EPA is hiring people like Cathy Stepp, will it do that in our region, too?" Meyer said. "The EPA has provided such a valuable backstop in the past."

Trump has vowed to dismantle the EPA. His EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, has taken steps to delay or block more than 30 environmental rules, the New York Times has reported.

DNR decline

Full-time DNR staffing has declined since the 1990s, including cuts by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle after the 2008 recession hit tax revenues.

Stepp said her record as a DNR critic gave her credibility to defend the agency's budget, but in 2015 Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature cut scientists who researched climate change and environmental hazards from mining, saying such work wasn't needed.

Demands by elected officials prompted a reorganization that dispersed remaining research scientists, altered law enforcement in parks, and led to cuts in public education efforts such as the DNR's magazine and presence at the state fair.

Stepp said she'll start work in the EPA Region 7 office in Kansas City early next month. The region covers Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri.

Stepp, 54, is a Wisconsin native who was highly critical of the DNR when she represented a Racine district in the state Senate from 2003 to 2007, and when she worked as a homebuilder.

DNR Deputy Secretary Kurt Thiede will become interim secretary on Aug. 31. Thiede, who holds a UW-Stevens Point degree in wildlife biology, served as a DNR land administrator, customer service supervisor and wildlife manager before Walker appointed him deputy secretary in 2015.


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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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