Recall election for Wisconsin governor

Tim EiseleI intereviewed Tom Barrett ahead of the Tuesday, June 5 recall election. I also attempted to interview Gov. Scott Walker, but I did not receive any response to my phone calls and e-mails to him.  I have followed the recall process and, as a journalist, I have covered the DNR and natural resource issues in the state for many years. There are lots of problems at the DNR these days and some of those problems stem from Gov. Walker's leadership. After talking to Barrett and several people who follow state resource issues, I put together the following thoughts about what's going on in Wisconsin's natural resources today.

The mission of the Department of Natural Resource (DNR) is to protect and enhance natural resources.  It is all about ensuring that air, land and water resources are there for future generations.

The mission of the DNR is not jobs.  That is the function of the Department of Workforce Development, the governor as the state’s top cheerleader, and the Department of Tourism.

Thus the special recall election to be held June 5 should be of major importance to every person who hunts, fishes, traps, camps, hikes, and breathes air and drinks water.

Scott Walker has shown in his brief governorship that his top priority is jobs, and he is willing to put natural resources at risk. Scott Walker will probably win since the Democrats haven’t put up anyone with forceful proposals for change, and residents remember the past train-wreck of Jim Doyle’s administration.

Scott Walker’s first budget called for reducing restrictions on phosphorous in Wisconsin waters, reducing the amount of money spent on Stewardship land purchasing, and opening more previously civil service positions to political appointments.

He has hamstrung the agency’s ability to change regulations and he has undermined the effectiveness of the Conservation Congress by signing Act 21.

He appointed a secretary who has no formal training in natural resources.  The secretary and assistant secretary were politicians, and politicians are only successful in catering to people by saying “yes.”

The DNR is a regulatory agency, meaning that it must say “no” to people.  ‘No” you can’t drain a wetland, “No” you can’t shoot all of the deer that you want, “No” you can’t spread more solid waste on the land because it could seep into the ground water.

Recent articles in the Wisconsin State Journal showed where DNR environmental enforcement activity has dropped substantially in the past two years.  In one case a DNR investigator recommended enforcement action against an Oconomowoc waste hauler who could have damaged resident’s drinking water, but DNR failed to refer the matter to the Department of Justice for prosecution and instead settled for a small fine.

Today citizens are left on their own and don’t have a DNR to protect clean water.  Instead citizens must take their own legal action if they hope to seek changes from a polluter.  It appears DNR is putting priority on private interests rather than public interests.

The DNR is supposed to present the best science and in the past when legislators brought bills for public hearings the DNR  testified for or against a bill and bring in the science and analysis that could correct shortcomings.  But under Secretary Cathy Stepp, the agency no longer takes a position on bills and testifies for information only.

Is it any wonder that even though conservation groups from Ducks Unlimited to Trout Unlimited testified against changes to wetlands laws, the Legislature bulled ahead and made radical changes that now open wetlands to further destruction?

Although the secretary likes to talk about all of the good ideas that come from DNR staff and the fact that nobody on the staff has objected to her changes, staff morale is lower than under Doyle’s administration and employees know that they can’t overcome the political controls.
Stepp, Maroney and Gunderson have sought input from employees, which has been received favorably, but part of that is because they have no formal training in natural resources and the other part is that the past regime under Jim Doyle allowed for little decision making that did not come from the governor’s office.  Doyle set the stage for Walker, and employees now watch as politics dictate decisions for natural resources.

There is a separation between the Natural Resources Board (seven citizens who set policy for the DNR but no longer hire the DNR secretary), and the DNR which supposedly carries out natural resources management.  In the past the board would adopt a legislative agenda that the DNR would then pursue looking for legislators who would be interested in developing proposed legislation.

But today the board has no legislative agenda and needs to stand up to its obligations and develop a legislative agenda since the DNR has abdicated its obligation of taking a stand on legislation.

The DNR recently changed its web site and there is no longer any reference to the Natural Resources Board, which currently has Doyle appointees in the majority and Walker appointees in the minority.  A person has to do some looking to find out anything about the board which is ostensibly supposed to set natural resources policy for this state.

The big reason why this election is so important is that two members of the NRB (Dave Clausen and Preston Cole) will have their terms up in 2013.  That is when the next governor will appoint two more board members and if Walker wins he will have a majority on the board.  That is when the board will swing from a natural resources board to a job creation board.

Past Walker-appointed board members, such as Bill Bruins, strictly represent private interests and have even voted against accepting donated farmland for public use.  Past practices of buying land for public use for tomorrow’s citizens will change rapidly with more Walker appointees.

It’s a sure bet that one of the best secretary’s the DNR ever had, the late Buzz Besadny, must be rolling over in his grave at the turn of events and the shift of the DNR.

Tony Earl, past secretary of the DNR under both governors Pat Lucey and Lee Dreyfus, said that, “It is all too clear that partisan politics are playing a role in how the DNR is run, and that is unprecedented.”

“Rather than refer a serious violation to the Department of Justice, people with overt political interests who benefitted from a past relationship with the polluter called the shots and that is extraordinarily unhealthy. DNR must regularly make difficult enforcement decisions, and that must be on the merits but the merits did not amount to much in this case,” Earl said.

Herb Behnke, past Natural Resources Board member appointed by two Republican governors (Knowles and Thompson), said that the thousands of people who hunt and fish need to understand that the DNR must get back to science based management.

“We don’t want to be back in the days of pre-Aldo Leopold when politicians were making the decisions and we saw a rape of the earth’s resources” Behnke said.  “We need to return to when the DNR decisions were made by those who were trained and experienced and based on science.”

Conservationists should think about what their vote will mean when they go to the polls on June 5.

Categories: Wisconsin – Tim Eisele

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