Behnke set to step down from NRB post

By Tim Eisele Correspondent

Madison — Herb Behnke has served on the Natural Resources Board
for more than 21 years, but now has indicated he’s ready to step

Behnke turned 80 in September. He said that although he has not
resigned, he is opening the door for Gov. Jim Doyle to appoint
someone who shares Behnke’s views on resource issues.

“It’s time, after devoting more than 40 years to the state of
Wisconsin, including a six-year stint on the Wolf River Regional
Planning Commission (WRRPC) in the 1960s,” Behnke said. He was
appointed to the WRRPC by then-governor Gaylord Nelson.

Former governor Warren Knowles appointed Behnke to the Wisconsin
Conservation Commission (WCC), which preceded the Natural Resources
Board (NRB). Behnke served one year there, then the Legislature
combined the Wisconsin Conservation Department and Department of
Resource Development to form the Department of Natural Resources.
The Legislature then replaced the WCC with the NRB. Behnke served
the remainder of his six-year term on the first NRB.

Following several years off the board, he was reappointed to the
NRB by then-governor Tommy Thompson in 1989 and has served
continuously since then.

Board members are appointed by the governor for six-year terms.
The NRB sets DNR policy and approves rules and regulations.
Appointees must be confirmed by the Senate.

Since Doyle has been governor, the Republican-controlled Senate
has yet to confirm three of his appointees. Jonathan Ela has not
been confirmed, but is serving on the NRB because he was appointed
to a position where the predecessor resigned. Jane Wiley has been
appointed to a seat that has yet to be relinquished by Steve
Willett. Wiley cannot serve because she has not been confirmed by
the Senate. Willett continues to serve until Wiley is confirmed.
Two other Doyle appointees, John “Duke” Welter (also not confirmed)
and Dr. Christine Thomas, are serving on the NRB.

Behnke was originally planning to step down when his previous
term expired May 1, 2001, but at the time Thompson convinced him to
continue, serving a third consecutive term just before the former
governor left Wisconsin to become secretary of Health and Human
Services under President Bush. Behnke’s term runs until May of

“I am willing to step down at the right time, though I hope to
still serve while there are issues such as the deer season proposal
for 2006 and the wolf delisting process,” Behnke said.

His stepping down is somewhat dependent on the governor’s
appointee having similar interests to Behnke when it comes to
resource management.

Behnke has taken what has been called a “blue-collar,
working-man’s approach” to natural resource issues. He wants to be
sure professional resource managers and sportsmen offer their input
to the board.

Originally from Lena, Behnke is a retired vice president of
marketing for 21st Century Genetics. He served on the Shawano Fish
and Game Association, represented Marinette and Shawano counties on
the Conservation Congress, and served on the Conservation Congress
Executive Council.

When Behnke began his NRB service, the citizen board hired and
evaluated the DNR secretary. Under Thompson, the DNR secretary
became a cabinet post appointed by the governor. The NRB still
approves or disapproves regulations and sets policies. The DNR and
the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection are
the two agencies in Wisconsin that have citizen boards, though both
now have secretaries appointed by the governor.

In 1995 when he was NRB chairman, and when Thompson was
governor, Behnke appeared before the Joint Finance Committee then
discussing Thompson’s proposal to make the DNR a cabinet agency.
Behnke opposed that system.

That didn’t win him any points with Thompson, who appointed him
three times to the board, but his reasoning then was that resource
management and environmental protection require continuity of
management objectives.

“Now the secretary changes whenever a new governor is elected.
Those programs should go on for a long period of time, but they
could change rapidly with a change in direction at the political
level,” Behnke said. “In addition, the Natural Resources Board is
responsible for policy and direction of the DNR, but under the
cabinet form cannot hold accountable the people in DNR who carry it
out because they are hired by the governor.”

The board is not involved in the administration of the DNR, but
Behnke would like to see the hiring of the secretary return to the
board, so that the secretary is hired based on qualifications for
the position rather than political considerations, as occurs now.
He believes the DNR is recognized nationwide for its resource
management programs because of the leadership of dedicated career
employees such as Ernie Swift, Les Voigt, Buzz Besadny, and George
Meyer who demonstrated their leadership based on hands-on
experience in the field.

“I still see the same dedication of employees and professionals
who carry out their duties in the field,” he said. “They are very
dedicated and their field efforts have not changed. The big change
that I see is the political direction at the top.”

Behnke believes that NRB candidates must have a desire to
protect the environment and provide proper management of natural
resources. Members should put the general public and people who buy
hunting, trapping, and fishing licenses and support natural
resource programs – instead of special interest groups – at the
forefront of policy considerations.

“You have to have a broad perspective and look at the state as a
whole,” he said. “You have to get guidance from the professionals
based on science and biology, and then balance that with whether
the public will be well served, when making decisions. Citizens
should have frequent contact with the citizen board and express
their views.”

He said he has served with more than 20 outstanding citizens on
the Natural Resources Board, people who were successful in private
enterprise. These citizens have applied sound management practices
in establishing policy and direction for the DNR, and DNR
leadership respected and was accountable to the board.

Behnke has been involved many controversial issues, including
deer management and deer hunting regulations.

“The biggest problem with deer is the amount of private land
that is a sanctuary for deer,” Behnke said. “Baiting and feeding of
deer is a deterrent to proper management. The deer aren’t moving
around looking for food like they used to.”

Private landowners often want to have a lot of deer on their
property, both to see and to have for hunters, and feeding
encourages the deer to stay there. If there weren’t mass baiting
and feeding, Behnke believes deer would be moving like they used
to. But instead, now they stay on some properties and are not
vulnerable to hunting.

Behnke believes that getting rid of the feeding would be a step
in the right direction; however, only the Legislature has the power
to ban feeding.

The public’s perception of DNR management and deer numbers has
long been an issue, part of the reason that Behnke, as chairman,
was instrumental in instructing the DNR to work with the
Conservation Congress to establish a long-term solution to deer
management. That resulted in the public initiative known as Deer

In 1991, Behnke proposed a 16-day gun deer season, which was
opposed by Conservation Congress leadership.

Behnke hopes the Sex-Age-Kill (SAK) audit will bring public
support for that process, or changes if necessary, but he realizes
that in the 1930s the late Aldo Leopold was criticized for his deer
population estimates and recommendations for shooting antlerless

“We judge everything by what happens in our little corner of the
world,” Behnke said. “One of the first things that ‘Frosty’ Smith,
who served on the old Conservation Commission from Wausau, said to
me when I was new on the commission was that ‘now, you are serving
the entire state of Wisconsin. You are an expert in only one square
mile of Wisconsin, so listen to other people and what they observe
and what the department’s biologists have to say.’ ”

Behnke supports DNR CWD efforts. He is not sure that CWD can be
eliminated, but it is important to try to contain it as much as

Behnke also wants to see the NRB continue to work on issues such
as wolf delisting and management, waterfowl zone boundaries,
development as it relates to aquatic habitant and water quality,
the health of the Stewardship Fund, and land purchases.

“I’ve enjoyed the contact with the public and the DNR
professionals,” Behnke said. “After having served 12 years on the
Conservation Congress it gave me a good base for serving on the
board, as I had an understanding of what the rules consisted of and
its responsibilities.”

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