WI: Staff getting to know Stepp

Wausau, Wis. – Newly appointed DNR secretary Cathy Stepp had a
smooth first meeting with the Executive Council of the Conservation
Congress on Jan. 7, while touching on DNR vacancies, taking in
ideas from DNR staff and the public, and splitting the DNR.

She reiterated that she wants to “open the agency,” and is
looking for ideas from people to improve the DNR.

Stepp was appointed as secretary on Dec. 30 by newly elected
Gov. Scott Walker. She spent her first week meeting with DNR
employees in Madison and around the state.

Stepp is the first woman to ever serve as secretary of the DNR
or its predecessor, the Wisconsin Conservation Department. New DNR
Executive Assistant Scott Gunderson was in Wausau with Stepp. He
previously served as a state representative from southeast
Wisconsin, and chaired the Assembly Natural Resources

“We’ve been on a whirlwind tour and met with (DNR) staff in
Rhinelander, Spooner, Eau Claire, and today Wausau to get out and
learn what is going on,” Gunderson said.

Stepp introduced herself as a former home builder, having sold
the company six years ago. She and her husband now sell used
semi-trucks and trailers. She served on the Natural Resources Board
for three years in the late 1990s and then ran for and was elected
to the state Senate for four years.

“While I am certainly no stranger to natural resource issues,
obviously I have some catching up to do,” she said. “I’ve always
appreciated the Conservation Congress’ involvement and passion for
sportsmen’s issues and preservation of habitat.”

Stepp was on the NRB when she hunted turkeys with Tim Andryk, a
DNR lawyer, and said she had a good time, but did not get a

Stepp has seen the DNR from several angles – as an NRB member,
as a regulated business owner, and as a legislator.

“You’re going to find a very different kind of management style
in the agency, more of a bottom-up, inclusionary style,” she said.
“We are going to be relying on you guys and your expertise. You can
contact me any time that you have ideas, problems, or

Her style will be “business focused” – things will not sit
around waiting for a decision, she said. If there is a problem, a
solution and implementation will soon follow. She admitted that she
was frustrated with the delays she often saw while in the

Dale Maas, Congress delegate from Fox Lake, asked Stepp if she
had any plans to split the agency into two departments.

“We have had no discussions about splitting the agency at this
time. In fact, I was kind of uncomfortable with that when I was on
the board because I saw how interconnected the environmental side
was with the wildlife side,” she said. “Yet, it is a big job to
have the agency functioning together like a machine. That’s the
exciting thing that Gundy’s experience, relationships with groups,
and depth of knowledge will help with – regulatory streamlining of
the permit process and trying to get that fixed.”

Dave Miller, of West Bend, wanted to know about Stepp’s outdoors

“We are snowmobilers, but we just sold our property near Sugar
Camp, which was my favorite place in the world,” she said. “Our
family would waterski and boat there, but I’m looking forward to
going on a bear census trip and later bear hunting, and deer
hunting, which I haven’t done before.”

Marc Schultz, of Onalaska, asked about her thoughts on the many
vacancies in the DNR.

“The first thing we are working on is meeting the employees
around the state to mitigate some of the negative rhetoric, and we
need to find out where we are and where programs are hurting. This
is a really difficult budget situation but the governor has made it
clear to us that he will give us discretion on how to handle it and
allocate things differently. We may not be able to add positions in
the short term, but we can find out where the most pertinent needs
are and put people there.”

Gunderson said that with the budget deficit there will
undoubtedly be cuts, but that Walker would give them flexibility on
where to make them. Stepp encouraged the Executive Council to
provide advice on where cuts should or should not be made.

Mark Noll, of Alma, said that as a woodland owner he is
concerned about the Managed Forest Law. So much land is going into
the program that taxes on other lands are going up, he said.

“You are not the first to tell me that you are concerned about
MFL. We’ll look at it,” she said.

Dick Koerner, of Neenah, was concerned that on Walker’s first
day he issued an executive order that gave exemptions from water
quality certification and mitigation for some wetlands. He asked
her to keep an eye on it.

“Not only will I keep an eye on it, but we were first alerted to
it when we were in Rhinelander and we called the governor’s office
for clarification,” Stepp said. “That … executive order pertains
to one particular location where there had been disagreement within
the department. It is not a blanket rule for wetlands

Koerner wanted to know if Walker wanted to make it easier to
destroy isolated wetlands to create jobs; Stepp said media were
blowing it out of proportion.

“I think it is important to open the debate about how we
classify things and what we do about mitigation. I know our state
hasn’t been doing as much mitigation compared to other states. We
can do a better job of making the program more user-friendly while
getting the best possible environmental benefits from it,” she
said. “The system we’ve currently got isn’t quite working like we
want it to. It opens up a discussion.”

Joe Weiss, of Spooner, asked Stepp for her philosophy on
development and jobs versus long-term water and habitat

“Being a former home builder I am sensitive to development
challenges. Red tape and bureaucracy drive up costs, and as we put
home ownership out of reach of young people we’re going to change
our future,” Stepp said.

“Having said that, I raise my family here and I love Wisconsin.
I don’t think a business philosophy is contrary to that,” she

Stepp said the agency she is appointed to run is responsible for
long-term protection of the resources of Wisconsin, including clean
air and water.

“I believe firmly, and I intend to prove it, that we can do both
– have job creation and continue to enhance our environment,” Stepp
said. “It is my job to show us how to do that.”

Mike Riggle, of Medford, said there is a lot of pressure on the
DNR to retreat from CWD efforts. He said there are things coming
that will help in that fight, and he does not want to see the
disease spread. Stepp said she was on the NRB when initial CWD
decisions were made and said those decisions will be based on

Other concerns council members raised included that the DNR
often quashes Congress resolutions; the DNR usually wants to do
things its way; Dane County is using Stewardship money to pay off
its debts; DNR wildlife managers make deer recommendations that are
changed in Madison; the impact of predators on deer populations
needs review; and concern over future vacancies in the warden

Stepp and Gunderson said they would look at what Dane County was
doing with Stewardship money because they also are concerned. Stepp
also wants to be sure lands are open for snowmobiling and ATV

Dave Miller said he was tired of the DNR thinking that it knows
better, and “the DNR does what the hell they want to do.”

Stepp several times said she wants better communications from
the DNR.

“Our first job is to put people in place, but we need to look at
the big picture, science-based but at the same time bring the
public back in,” Gunderson said. He said he understands unhappiness
with the deer season and wants to make sure the public has

Weiss recommended they look at the budget and realize that they
have to serve the public.

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” Stepp said. “From a business
perspective, having service centers closed for three out of five
weekdays does not make sense. I also understand the budgetary
restraints, but we have to have better customer service.”

Gunderson said they would be traveling around the state, and
Stepp wants to be sure the leadership team is visible.

“We’ve learned so much and I want you to know that a lot of
folks believe this leadership team will be a good thing,” he said.
“Folks are coming out of the woodwork to talk to us. We’ve opened
it up and we’re getting a lot of new ideas.”

Stepp and Gunderson encouraged Conservation Congress members to
communicate with Stepp’s office, and they want the agency to be one
that people want to work with and that helps to create jobs within
the state while protecting the environment.

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