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2016 DNR at State Fair

The state DNR is greatly reducing its presence at the Wisconsin State Fair. Above, the DNR in 2016 promoted its displays and activities with a drawing.

The state Department of Natural Resources says its large-scale presence at the Wisconsin State Fair is a thing of the past.

The DNR will no longer send 100 to 200 staff members to the 11-day event to promote hunting, fishing or its programs enforcing air and water pollution laws, a spokesman confirmed Tuesday.

The change is part of an attempt by DNR secretary Cathy Stepp to refocus the agency’s energies after years of budget cuts and criticism from the Legislature.

In the past, the department operated a 2-acre Natural Resources Park within State Fair Park grounds in West Allis. The department offered archery and a clinic on casting for fish, along with a nature-oriented children’s play area, a “Kid’s Camp,” fish tanks, “Smokey’s Schoolhouse,” and activities involving birdwatching, fishing, knot-tying and tracking.

Starting this year, it will offer information on state parks, recreation areas and endangered species, while the State Fair will manage the two acres, said DNR spokesman Jim Dick.

The State Fair website says the DNR’s area has been named Exploratory Park, which will include a new display on the fair’s history. UW-Extension and Milwaukee County Master Gardeners will continue to have displays.

DNR leaders announced the change to employees in an internal newsletter last week, noting that many had fond memories of interacting with fair-goers. However, the newsletter added, the department is refocusing on its most important responsibilities.

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The newsletter noted that the department has spent $600,000 improving its area of the state fair park in the last two years and more expenditures would have been needed.

In 2014, Stepp said the department was working on the site by removing invasive plants and cutting down 19 trees infested with emerald ash borers, an invasive species. The department used donated pesticides to treat other trees and added donated plantings.

“DNR is using the issues on this very visible and much-loved site to raise awareness about invasive species,” Stepp said in a memorandum to the Natural Resources Board.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel first reported the change.

On Monday, Gov. Scott Walker told reporters he wants all state agencies to become more efficient.

“Part of that is looking at the numbers and saying, for the money they take to operate something like that, and the staff time involved, is that the best use of those dollars, or can they plow more of that into hunter safety in schools where you have direct access to kids, or through other youth activities?” Walker said.

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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.