Forestry separation gains public support

Correspondent

Madison A groundswell of support for a separate Department of
Forestry in Wisconsin came rumbling to the surface as proponents
participated in a press conference Aug. 6 at the State Capitol.

From private woodland owners to county forest representatives to
retired foresters from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR),
the theme was the same: it’s time to get a separate Department of
Forestry in Wisconsin so that citizens can get the service for
which they’ve paid.

Marie Kolberg, a private woodland owner who lives in Madison but
owns forestland in northern Wisconsin, said that almost 100 years
ago the state hired its first forester, and it’s time to put
emphasis back on forestry.

“We need to revert back to a separate Forestry Department, as
foresters are up to their eyeballs in work and are being asked to
do a lot of things that aren’t forestry related while thousands of
people are waiting for foresters to help them with management
plans,” Kolberg said.

Dan Meyer, chairman of the Governor’s Council on Forestry, said
the council supports a separate Department of Forestry because it
has seen a decline in the importance of forestry within the
DNR.

“It is a sad situation, as 13,000 private landowners are
enrolled in the Managed Forest Law and are waiting for service from
DNR foresters, which is required under the law, but they’re not
getting it,” Meyer said.

“The future of our forests is in the hands of the small private
landowner, who own 57 percent of the forests. We tried to overcome
the problems by working with the DNR, and getting Forestry elevated
to a division status, but too often priorities were switched for
foresters.”

Meyer emphasized that the desire for a separate department is
not political, but is bi-partisan, due to a neglect for forestry.
He noted that:

Forestry has consistently become a lower priority within the
DNR. DNR forestry customers have experienced an estimated 15- to
20-percent reduction in services since the 1995 reorganization.

Forestry is the largest industry in the state, contributing more
than $20 billion annually to the state’s economy. That’s larger
than agriculture and tourism combined.

Forestry management decisions are being made by DNR supervisors
who do not have a forestry background, and the chief state forester
does not have line authority over forestry decisions.

The Forestry Account supports 409 forestry positions and an
additional 210 non-forestry related, or overhead, support staff,
more than its fair share.

Milt Reinke, a retired DNR forester who served 37 years the last
16 as chief forester, said that one of the biggest objections is
the misuse of the Forestry Mill Tax. Reinke said the tax was
established in the 1920s to fund forestry activities, but today is
being used to fund positions, such as in research, that have no
bearing on forestry.

In addition, forestry does not have line authority, which
prevents the chief forester from reacting to emergencies and, under
the current organization, field foresters spend less and less time
on forestry.

“Years ago DNR foresters in the north spent 85 percent of their
time working on county forests, and now that’s down to 20 percent,”
Reinke said. “The counties are ticked off, and I don’t blame
them.”

The Wisconsin County Forests Association is in support of the
proposal, saying that forestry gets shortchanged at DNR and the
Mill Tax is viewed by DNR as the “Golden Goose” and pays for more
than its fair share of overhead costs.

The Forestry Mill Tax, passed by a public referendum in the
1920s, provides that homeowners pay about $2 for every $10,000 of
assessed valuation.

“But the DNR is using that money for activities other than
forestry, which in my opinion is unconstitutional and dishonest,”
Reinke said. “We used to be very careful to use only segregated
funds for the purposes they were intended for, but today that is
ignored.”

Jim Miller, retired as a DNR forester in 1995 after 38 years,
said he opposed the split of the DNR if internal changes would be
made. But, when those changes weren’t made by the DNR secretary, he
now supports the formation of a separate Department of
Forestry.

“Forestry has been the stepchild of the DNR for years,” Miller
said. “It is the cash cow because of the forestry mill tax, and
even the new DNR secretary, Darrell Bazzell, said that he is
looking at how much overhead forestry is funding and at first
glance looks like it might be disproportionate.”

When the Legislature created the Division of Forestry within the
DNR two years ago, then-secretary George Meyer dragged his feet and
didn’t staff the division until pressure was exerted, Miller said.
Then, the division was an employee of one person, but the division
administrator (Gene Francisco) has no real authority.

When the 1995 reorganization was first being studied, Miller
said that the consultants found that Forestry had the ideal ratio
of supervisors to people being supervised. But, that recommendation
was discarded.

Miller said reorganization supposedly created teams, a misnomer.
People with no real background in resource management were put in
charge of basins or sub-basins, he said.

“The reorganization did away with area foresters, area forest
rangers, and area wildlife managers, and many of their sub-team
leaders have no idea about those programs,” Miller said. “Employee
morale has been low since the reorganization and they’ve increased
the layers of supervision.”

Miller said that if the organization would change so Forestry
could control Forestry money and Forestry employees and workload,
he wouldn’t support a separate department. But, without that change
it is needed to save the Forestry program.

Ken Sloan retired in August of 2000 as the DNR Northern Region
fire management officer. He emphasizes that the move to a separate
department is not about politics, but is a response to the past
five years of trying to resolve concerns following the DNR
reorganization. He said that as Forestry staff was diverted to
other assignments, landowner complaints increased because they
didn’t receive service.

“In the past five years we’ve seen the backlog of Managed Forest
Law requests double and there are now almost 13,000 unserviced
requests,” Sloan said.

Sloan said there didn’t seem to be enough money allocated for
fire prevention training, which was one of the DNRs core
missions.

“A U.S. Forest Service audit even questioned our ability to
deliver an effective fire control program in the reorganized
department,” Sloan said.

Supporters said the change to a new department can be made with
no new money, instead using the Forestry Mill Tax for what it was
intended, that 11 other states have a successful Department of
Forestry, and that a separate department will bring forestry to a
cabinet-level position and provide two agency heads speaking on
behalf of natural resources at the governor’s meetings.

The news conference was called hurriedly, following a news
conference the preceding week of environmental organizations
requesting the governor to veto the new department in the state
budget. The Natural Resources Board also issued a statement
strongly opposing the split, saying forestry would no longer report
to a citizen board and it would weaken natural resource management
in Wisconsin.

A spokesman for Rep. John Gard (R-Peshtigo) said that Gov.
McCallum wasn’t expected to decide on the new department for
another two weeks.

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