Sportsmen: NRB should hire DNR head

Madison – State sportsmen and conservation groups turned out in
big numbers to deliver passionate testimony in favor of the “DNR
secretary bill” to the Assembly Natural Resources Committee during
a July 28 public hearing in Madison.

If Assembly Bill (AB) 138 passes both houses (the companion bill
in the Senate is SB 113) and survives an expected veto by Gov. Jim
Doyle, the bill would return authority of hiring the DNR secretary
to the Natural Resources Board.

Current DNR Secretary Matt Frank, who was appointed by Doyle,
testified against the bill, while former DNR secretary George Meyer
followed Frank and testified in favor of AB 138.

A standing-room-only crowd packed the hearing room, and when it
ended, 173 people had registered in favor of the bill and 19
registered against the bill, including Frank.

Public testimony heavily favored the bill. Citizens want the NRB
to hire the DNR secretary.

Rep. Spencer Black, D-Madison, drafted the bill and chairs the
Assembly committee. Another 50 representatives and 17 senators have
co-sponsored the bill. On July 28, opening support came from Black,
Sen. Robert Wirch, D-Pleasant Prairie, Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah,
and Nina Leopold Bradley, daughter of the late Aldo Leopold.

Black, who has introduced a bill to change the system every year
since 1996, quoted Aldo Leopold: “Conservation must have continuity
of purpose and policy, and freedom from interference or political
manipulation.”

Politicians, Black noted, use a timeframe of four years to make
decisions, whereas conservation is about the next generation. In
addition governors come and go, and a “bad-conservation” governor
can do severe damage to natural resources.

Kaufert said the change is important to state citizens, and he
“does not want to screw up the environment” for his 4-year-old
grandson.

Frank vs. Meyer

Frank said the environmental challenges are bigger than just the
DNR, and, as a cabinet agency, the DNR is in a better position to
integrate conservation with other agencies and is more effective
with the governor’s backing.

Meyer, who was hired by the NRB and who also served as a
governor appointee under former Gov. Tommy Thompson, refuted
Frank’s perspective, saying that more than 80 percent of DNR
employees think the system worked better under the board
appointment system.

“Many employees have left the agency early because of impacts of
the politically appointed secretary,” he said.

He said governor-appointed secretaries are short-timers
requiring duplicate training that pulls talented staff members away
from other projects. He said appointees also select top managers
who don’t hunt and fish, and allow political interference in
decision making.

“I often hear the comment from employees that ‘we have to run it
past the governor’s office’ no matter how minor the decision,”
Meyer said.

Frank said the DNR is more effective inside the governor’s
administration, citing passage of the Great Lakes Compact and the
Stewardship program,

Black countered that he authored the first Stewardship bill and
originally Thompson opposed it, yet the independent DNR staff was
helpful in supporting it, and eventually Thompson changed his
position.

Meyer added that Frank “casually dismissed accomplishments such
as the state’s Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species
Act, and original Stewardship Act, that took place with
board-appointed secretaries who worked with governors of both
parties.”

Long on support

Two long-time conservation leaders, Leopold Bradley and Herb
Behnke, supported the bill.

Leopold Bradley said the change would build integrity and
effectiveness into the DNR. She said her father worked on the same
issues in the 1920s and was firm in his belief that the citizen
commission must be based on science and the director should be
chosen by the commission or board.

Behnke said Aldo Leopold, Haskell Noyes, and William Aberg
successfully sought a conservation commission that appointed the
secretary of the department. However, that changed in 1995 when
Thompson made the DNR secretary a cabinet appointment through a
budget bill move.

Behnke, who was appointed to the NRB by Thompson, chaired the
board in 1995, and he appeared before the Joint Finance Committee
to oppose moving the secretary into the governor’s office.

“I felt it was wrong at that time and the past years have proven
that, and I still feel that way,” Behnke said, calling attention to
the decline in employee morale and the “pipeline” that special
interest groups have to the governor’s office.

“AB 138 will put an end to the possibility of the ‘Golden Rule,’
process where those who have the gold make the rules,” he said.

Conservation Congress chairman Ed Harvey said the question of
returning appointment to the NRB passed by huge margins at spring
hearings in 1998, 2000, and 2006.

One citizen, Perry Pierre, of Seymour, said he supports the bill
because it will provide “commitment and continuity.”

Several retired and active DNR employees took personal time to
testify.

Retired game warden Dean Gullickson said DNR morale is the
lowest he has ever seen.

“Previously ideas from the field were valued, but now there are
‘gag wires;’ everything comes from Madison down. Employees can’t
speak; only spokesmen can,” he said.

Rick Prosise, retired DNR legal counsel, favored the bill,
saying “the secretaries appointed by the (board) were in a better
position to make balanced decisions, taking into account natural
resources as well as political considerations.”

Others who testified were:

€ Gary Steffen, retired DNR_forestry employee representing
Wisconsin Science Professionals, said politics plays a role in the
DNR, as it checks with the governor’s office before it can speak
out. He used former forestry chief Gene Francisco as an example of
an employee who left because of a difference with the governor’s
office.

€ Linda Meyer, retired attorney, said she’s heard from employees
that changes to rules were sidetracked for political concerns.

€ DNR game warden Matt MacKenzie, of Ashland, said he thinks
there’s already a risk to natural resources from use for political
gain, and he worries wardens may be asked to look the other way at
times.

€ Doug Risch, retired water management specialist, said DNR
morale is as low as it has ever been and there has been a
significant shift, making access harder for public documents.

€ Retired game warden Tom Hansen, of Green Bay, said the DNR
field staff is more isolated than ever and was told “you are now
part of a political system.”

Six people besides Frank spoke against the bill, mostly
representing business interests, including the Wisconsin
Manufacturers and Commerce.

Brad Boyce, of the Wisconsin Builders Association, testified
against the bill, saying the DNR would not be accountable under an
independent secretary.

“The governor now can be held more accountable for environmental
policy,” Boyce said.

Black plans to have the Assembly committee vote on the bill the
first week of September.

The Senate Committee on Transportation, Tourism, Forestry and
Natural Resources Committee plans to hold a public hearing on the
companion bill (SB 113) in mid-August.

The bills must pass the two committees and then pass the full
Assembly and full Senate and be signed by the governor to become
law. If Doyle were to veto the bill, the Legislature would need 66
representatives and 22 senators – a two-thirds majority – to
override the veto.

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