NRB’s Ela questions CC advocacy

Madison – Did Natural Resources Board member Jonathan Ela leap
before he looked when he challenged the Conservation Congress’s
ability to comment on an extended deer season and restrictions on
hunting and trapping on land bought with Stewardship funds?

Two conservation leaders say yes, one says maybe not, and now
it’s going to take a team of lawyers to settle the issue.

During an abbreviated Dec. 14 NRB meeting by phone, Ela, the
NRB’s vice chair, suggested the Congress may have been out of line
in advocating a position on longer deer seasons and access to
Stewardship lands because the Congress is partially funded by the

“I have real questions about the Conservation Congress using
state money to conduct public advocacy,” Ela said. “Their expressed
role, as I understand it, statutorily, is to advise the DNR and the
Natural Resources Board. It is not, as I understand it, to issue
press releases where the board has not developed policy on the
deer-hunting proposal or to advocate before the Legislature where
the board has not determined policy as it relates to Stewardship

Ela asked the DNR legal staff to sit down with Congress leaders
and the DNR to come up with guidelines for what is appropriate.

“My own feeling is that if the Congress accepts state money they
then do what the statutes tell them to, or if they don’t accept
state money then they do what they want,” he said. “That is only my
instinct. I don’t think they can have it both ways.”

NRB member Gary Rohde, of River Falls, said Ela’s request to
have legal counsel look at the issue was correct. Lawyers could
then make a recommendation to the board.

NRB member John Welter, of Eau Claire, who has served on the
Conservation Congress, was not at the meeting because he was
recuperating from surgery.

Conservation Congress chairman Ed Harvey was not in attendance,
but when reached by telephone, he said the Congress is careful
about what it does and has not violated procedures.

“I wish Jonathan would have talked to me about this before he
went ahead with it. I don’t think it was appropriate in going ahead
without talking to me,” Harvey said.

Harvey said the Congress is funded with about $90,000 of state
money – some from the Fish and Game Fund, and some from general
purpose revenue.

“We were audited two years ago and came through that with flying
colors,” he said.

Harvey said there are some Congress activities, such as giving
out awards each year, where it would not be appropriate to use tax
dollars or money coming from the Fish and Wildlife account. Those
activities are funded through a non-profit, free-standing
corporation – the Friends of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress.
Some of this money is raised by Congress delegates.

“A couple years ago we received an opinion from the Wisconsin
Department of Justice, not from DNR attorneys, on the
appropriateness of the Congress doing what are clearly lobbying
activities. The answer from the Department of Justice was that we
can do that.” Harvey said.

For example, the Congress has worked hard on the NRB-appointed
DNR secretary bill and received strong direction from the public to
get that changed, Harvey said.

“But if there was something else that the Congress wanted to be
active in, we are able to do that because we are all volunteers; we
are not paid employees. But when we do that we are very careful.
For instance, when I go to Madison to testify at a legislative
committee hearing, I do not charge mileage.

“The Department of Justice made it clear to us what we are and
are not to do, and we have been very careful about that,” Harvey

One item referred to by Ela was a November statement put out by
the Congress following its Nov. 6 executive council meeting on the
deer season proposals. Harvey said that was the Congress reporting
its activities to the public, and that is a responsibility of every
government group to do.

The Congress also sent a letter to the Senate, Assembly, and
Gov. Doyle on June 2 after the Joint Finance Committee made
amendments to the governor’s budget that would have undone the work
of earlier agreements regarding public access to lands purchased
with state Stewardship money.

Harvey said the Congress had a member who was a part of the
Stewardship Citizens Advisory Committee and this member donated
eight hours of personal vacation to work and serve on the

“These are things that we are very careful about, and I am
comfortable that everything we have done has been appropriate as a
government agency and in the guidelines that we received from the
Department of Justice a couple years ago,” Harvey said.

Wisconsin Wildlife Federation Executive Director George Meyer
said he was amazed by Ela’s comments. He said it sounded as though
Ela will question how a group is funded if he does not like the
stand that an organization takes.

“The Congress is not alone in getting funding from the DNR and
being an advocate for natural resources,” Meyer said.

He said that several other groups receive state funds from the
DNR, including the Ice Age Trail Foundation, Gathering Waters, The
River Alliance, and the Center for Resilient Cities. Meyer noted
that Ela didn’t call their positions into question.

“They all receive funding from DNR, some quite substantial, and
they clearly are advocates on issues both for and against the
board. To single out the Congress just because he doesn’t like
their position is disingenuous,” Meyer said.

Meyer served as a lawyer in the DNR Legal Bureau and later
served as DNR secretary. He said that over the years the Congress
has taken positions on many issues, and they are always still
advisory to the board.

“The Congress has been funded by the state for a long time and
it has taken positions for and against those of the board,” Meyer
said. “They have the responsibility, by statute, to be advisory,
but this sounds like Jonathan doesn’t like some of the positions
they have taken.”

Herb Behnke is a retired NRB_member from Shawano. He said he
could see why Ela raised the questions.

Behnke has a unique perspective since he served on the Wisconsin
Conservation Commission and the DNR for 22 years (from 1967 to 1972
and again from 1989 to 2006). Before that he served 12 years on the
Conservation Congress, representing Shawano and Marinette

Behnke believes the statute that makes the Congress an official
advisory group to the NRB and the DNR is a little ambiguous, and
does not spell out the Congress’ full role.

“I really think the Congress is the voice of the people, and
quite valuable in making fish and wildlife decisions,” Behnke said.
“The Congress gets people involved, and they come to the board and
DNR to bring about compromise.

“I thought the Congress played a great role in representing the
social part in the fish and wildlife program. Their role was vital
in reaching a final decision that was acceptable to people and
management,” he said.

However, after the NRB makes a decision and it is sent to the
Legislature for approval, Behnke said, then any action in
opposition to the board’s decision would be inappropriate.

Behnke believes Ela has raised a legitimate question and the
answers will most likely involve interpretation by attorneys.

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