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Diminished DNR

A sandhill crane take off near the entrance of Lake Kegonsa State Park near Stoughton, Wis. Gov. Scott Walker promised to transform the state Department of Natural Resources. And he has, cutting scientists, shrinking its budget and pushing the agency to be more receptive to industry. More changes could be in store. Walker and Republican lawmakers are considering whether to eliminate the agency and spread its duties across state government as well as forcing people to pay more for hunting licenses and to get into state parks.

MADISON — Gov. Scott Walker promised to transform the state Department of Natural Resources. And he has, cutting scientists, shrinking its budget and pushing the agency to be more receptive to industry.

And even more changes could be in store. Walker and Republican lawmakers, who hold their largest majorities in decades, are pondering whether to eliminate the agency and spread its duties across state government as well as charge people more to get into state parks and to hunt. It all adds up to a picture of a struggling agency no one recognizes any more, critics say.

“They want this chamber of commerce mentality,” said Scott Hassett, who served as DNR secretary under former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. “That’s a different image than protector of natural resources. It’s sad.”

Agency officials and the Walker administration counter that the DNR is doing fine, carrying out its mission to protect the environment and enhance resources while becoming more customer-friendly. Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the DNR has become “more efficient, effective, transparent, and accountable” since Walker took office.

Republicans have long criticized the DNR, saying its pollution and hunting regulations are too strict, making it difficult for businesses to expand and draining the fun from outdoor sports. Walker’s three state budgets cut $59 million from the DNR and eliminated nearly 200 positions, including half of its science researchers.

Last month DNR officials announced a major reorganization to deal with staffing cuts, including allowing large livestock farm operators to use consultants to help write permit applications so DNR staff won’t have to spend so much time on them.

The budgets also have scaled back the stewardship program and removed support for state parks, leaving them to survive on fees. That’s created a $1.4 million deficit in the parks account, and Walker’s now mulling raising access fees.

In 2011 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cited 75 deficiencies in how the DNR handles water regulation. Two environmental groups sued the DNR in 2014 to force the agency to adopt federal air pollution standards that were published a year earlier. The agency finally adopted them late last year.

This past June, state auditors found that the agency wasn’t following its own policies for policing pollution from large livestock farms and wastewater treatment plants. The audit also found a permit backlog for large farms, with DNR employees not having enough time to closely monitor the farms’ operations.

Last fall federal regulators visited the DNR to investigate claims that the agency is failing to enforce water pollution laws and regulations. The EPA hasn’t released any findings yet. And last month the agency removed language from its website that stated human activities are causing climate change, saying instead that the cause is debatable even though most scientists agree burning fossil fuels causes global warming.

What’s more, waning interest in hunting has resulted in fewer license purchases, creating a $4 million gap between revenue and spending authority for habitat management projects. The DNR has suggested Walker make up the difference by raising hunting and fishing license fees.

“So many changes and roadblocks have tied DNR’s hands so dramatically that they’re really not able to do the job the public expects them to be doing,” said Amber Meyer Smith, a lobbyist for environmental advocacy group Clean Wisconsin, a plaintiff in the air lawsuit.

Scott Manley, a lobbyist for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group and a key Republican constituency, said the DNR has become friendlier to businesses and is still doing its job despite the staffing cuts.

DNR spokesman James Dick cited a list of accomplishments. They included improved air quality — a DNR report released in September found air pollution has dropped statewide over the last decade — efforts to recruit hunters and the purchase of a conservation easement on 67,000 acres in northern Wisconsin, the largest conservation purchase in state history.

He also pointed out the agency is working to correct the EPA-identified deficiencies, walleye stocking has expanded and the agency has made strides in building a customer service image.

“There will always be critics who vocally disagree with what we’re doing but we prefer to note the accomplishments we’ve made over the last five years,” Dick said. “Since the start of this DNR administration, we have always believed it is possible to protect the environment, wildlife habitat and other natural resources without impeding the economic growth and development of our state.”

The agency still isn’t getting any love from GOP lawmakers. Rep. Adam Jarchow has resurrected a proposal to split the DNR into two new departments that would handle wildlife and pollution and spread the rest of the agency’s duties across three existing agencies. He has said the DNR doesn’t function in its current form.

Republicans have tried to break up the agency before but have failed in the face of opposition from outdoor clubs and environmental groups. Still, Walker has said the plan is worth pursuing. Five former DNR secretaries who served under both Democrats and Republicans, including Hassett and George Meyer, now executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, sent Walker a letter last week urging him to keep the agency intact.

Meyer, who served under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, said in a telephone interview that Walker is building a “negative” environmental legacy.

“His idea of customer service,” Meyer said, “is really just a business customer service.”

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(10) comments

doesthatwork4u

All one has to do is look at your water bill to see what "great things" the DNR has done for us. I get a "rain water run off" tax added to each bill. When that was originally proposed THEY said no private residence would get taxed. Once it was approved they levied taxes against all users of public water works. Some not-for-profits get water bills that include $20 water/sewer $200 rain water run-off. There is NO relief for many as their parking lots were paved long ago and the properties can NOT provide the "required" containment. Yep they are necessary in everyway. :-(

Moderate Voter

The feds will get rid of the EPA and states will compete for new business by decreasing environmental regulations and enforcement. Wisconsin is only open for business. If we want clean air and water we can move or go on vacation.

Lucky2

Breaking up the WDNR would be terrible for the Conservation Congress and the idea of citizen input into conservation issues. Snowmobile and ATV use in state forests would no longer be subject to input from county Conservation Congress meetings because they would be part of the Department of Agriculture, which gets no input from citizen conservation groups. Forestry industry would have to compete with corn, soybean and potato growers for policy priority with DATCP executives. High capacity wells would be regulated by ... who knows who; but it would not be DNR, so local citizens would no longer be able to get their voices heard through the Conservation Congress.

TricoSpinner

What could possibly go wrong?

Tripleb

What the DNR is doing with our wildlife or should I say what they did with our wildlife is totally unexceptable in my mind. Pheasants have disappeared, grouse have disappeared, small mammals are disappearing, the deer herd is the worst I've seen since the early to mid 1970s. There cutting all the trees down on the public hunting lands in this area,stating they want the whole woods to all be the same height in groath. They took baiting away from us because of the CWD which has been here since the early 1960s but private land owners can plant food plots. If the DNR is cutting all these trees down. Why don't they put in food plots on the public lands? The money's their getting for the lumber should go right back into that public land with food plots. Stop issuing all the doe tags and also do away with all the antler less hunts,youth hunts, holiday hunt and add the muzzle loader season to the 9 day gun hunt. I personally think the deer season should be shut down for 2 years and restructure the bag limit. I'm very disappointed in the DNR'S roll in this. I've seen it go from terrible hunting to awesome hunting and now back to terrible.

Sand-Blaster

There are more deer now than 100 yrs ago.
I see dead deer along the road, I see and nearly hit deer when driving.
I see pheasants frequently. I hear them all summer near my folk's farm.

Yes... you have some valid points about timber management.

Further North

You throw a whole bunch of stuff at the wall there to see if sticks...let's look at your claims one by one:

1) "Pheasants have disappeared".
Nonsense. I have lived on the same acreage for the last dozen years and there's no fewer now than there were when I Moved here. I hunt public land for pheasants, and it is not unusual to see 20 or more birds a day between hens and roosters. Those are not South Dakota numbers...but far better than I ever saw in SE WI.

2) "grouse have disappeared".
Again...nonsense. Couple of factors here. First, grouse are cyclical...where are we on their cycle? I would guess near the bottom of the ten year cycle. Second, grouse are very habitat dependent, which means that we need to be cutting down trees....something you seem to be against.

3) "small mammals are disappearing".
I don't even know where to start with this one...take a walk in my back yard this time of year and you'll see tracks for just about everything with fur on it...

4) "the deer herd is the worst I've seen since the early to mid 1970s."
Wow...it must have been really dangerous to drive back in the mid 1970s then...it is rare that I do not see several deer a week on my drive to and from work...and when I was up near the St. Croix River back in early November I had to drive about 35 MPH from the boat launch to the first main road there were so many deer around. I saw easily 200 in 15 minutes. A trip back from the Jump River in late august had us looking at deer in almost every farm field we passed.

5) "There [sic] cutting all the trees down on the public hunting lands in this area,stating they want the whole woods to all be the same height in groath [sic]."
Long overdue. Nothing lives in old growth; wildlife flourishes in younger, growing forests. The Federal Government absolutely ruined some of the best ruffed grouse and woodcock habitat in the country down near Necedah by not logging it...it was not unusual to move 30 birds an hour down there in the late 70 and 80s...last time I was down there it was rare to see 10 birds a day.

6) "They took baiting away from us because of the CWD which has been here since the early 1960s but private land owners can plant food plots."
Well...first: Food plots are nothing like baiting...we could have entirely separate discussion on baiting and it's lack of good sportsmanship...

7) "If the DNR is cutting all these trees down. Why don't they put in food plots on the public lands? The money's [sic] their [sic] getting for the lumber should go right back into that public land with food plots."
Again...good for them on cutting down the trees..long overdue.
Regarding food plots: Food plots do not sustain wildlife, habitat sustains wildlife. Anyone who has been involved in wildlife conservation in any serious way in the last 40 years knows this...
On the logging...that's pretty much exactly where the money does go...

8) "Stop issuing all the doe tags and also do away with all the antler less hunts,youth hunts, holiday hunt and add the muzzle loader season to the 9 day gun hunt. I personally think the deer season should be shut down for 2 years and restructure the bag limit. I'm very disappointed in the DNR'S roll in this. I've seen it go from terrible hunting to awesome hunting and now back to terrible."
No comment here...other than I guess I'd rely on the wildlife management skills of professionals rather than back-porch experts who probably don't spend more than a the equivalent of a couple weeks a year in the woods.

Here's the deal: Successful wildlife management requires habitat and habitat management. It is really that simple. The best way to get game animal numbers (and everything else as a side benefit) is to focus on that. Limit urban growth and development; stop managing for one species over others (turkey are an excellent example), and don't restrict the ability of the DNR to enforce strict laws on pollution and emission violations. When a business or a farm dumps a bunch of crap into our waterways...fine them into insolvency...

uradbag

Sportsmen for Walker better find new hobbies.

Wisguy70

I wouldn't expect anything better than an AP reporter indicating that the "Republicans considering eliminating state DNR" as a headline. Really, so there won't be any hunting or camping fees soon! Bull, what partisan mad libs style headline and article is this.

Sand-Blaster

Time to dismantle Guvvie W & Co.

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