Keep Politics Out of Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board

    We need to ensure that politicians keep their mitts off of the Natural Resources Board.

    Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board is composed of seven individuals appointed by the governor for six-year terms.

    Board members are all volunteers, three have to be from south of Stevens Point, three from north of Stevens point and one is from any location in the state.

    At least three board members must have had a hunting, fishing or trapping license for 7 of the 10 years before they were appointed, and at least one must have an agricultural background. (View a pdf list of historic Natural Resource Board appointments here.)

    The board sets policy for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and approves regulations.

Besides involving citizen input, the citizen board keeps the DNR at some distance from obvious partisan politics!

    Board terms begin on May 1, and in 2021, two current board members, Dr. Frederick Prehn (a North position since he lives in Wausau), the current chair, and Julie Anderson (a South position since she is in Sturtevant), had terms that ended April 30.

    Anderson indicated that she did not request re-nomination, however Dr. Prehn applied to be re-appointed.

    Normally, but not always, Republican governors nominate people who presumably have a history of swaying Republican or conservative, while Democrat governors nominate people with an indication of being Democrat or liberal.

    This was not the case when Preston Cole was first appointed by Democrat Jim Doyle in 2007, but was then re-appointed by Republican Scott Walker in 2013, at a time when the board was dominated by Walker appointees.

    Often an appointee’s political bent is not known, or had not been obvious, but their one dominant feature is a strong interest in natural resources.

    Going into 2021 board had five members who have been appointed by then Gov. Scott Walker (Prehn, Bill Bruins, Julie Anderson, Terry Hilgenberg and Greg Kazmierski) and two more-recently appointed by Gov. Evers (Marcy West and Bill Smith).

    Although individuals are appointed by partisan governors, it is this writer’s opinion that board members try to come to a consensus and don’t let partisan politics interfere. 

    People can look at things differently, that’s only human, but their mission is to set policy for the DNR and board members generally are looking out for the good of natural resources.

    The board is where “social” interests enter into decisions, as the board hears “biological” interests presented by the DNR.  The board then has to make the tough decisions.

    Important in all of this is to realize that board members serve as volunteers.  They are NOT paid, other than reimbursed expenses, and they receive packets of background information (called “green sheets”) they must read and understand prior to each of the nine meetings.

    On the last day of April, Gov. Tony Evers announced that he has appointed Sandra Dee E. Naas of Ashland and Sharon Adams of Milwaukee to the Natural Resources Board.

Nass will fill the vacancy created by the expiring term of Dr. Frederick Prehn of Wausau, and Adams will fill the expiring term of Julie Anderson of Sturtevant.

Both of the new board appointees will need to receive confirmation from the State Senate, which most likely will not come for several months.

The new terms began May 1, 2021, and Adams was able to begin serving immediately with the May board meeting since Anderson did not seek re-appointment.

Prehn, who had been re-elected as chair of the board in January, decided not to relinquish his seat, telling me that, “I intend to fulfill the chairmanship role that was granted to me in January and at this time I await senate confirmation on the appointee.”

    The fact that Prehn was serving as chair makes it understandable he wants to continue, but his term has ended and the board should go on record establishing a policy for all board members to follow that once board member terms expire and the governor appoints new replacements, even though not yet confirmed, the expired board member should step off and allow the new member to begin.

Confirmation required

    New board members must be confirmed by the state senate, and this could mean that the Republican-controlled senate could hold up confirmation, in which case Prehn could continue serving on the board until someone is confirmed to replace him.

    Sometimes when an appointee lingers without confirmation, the appointment is withdrawn and a new person is nominated by the governor.

    It is also possible that the senate could vote the new appointee down, allowing Prehn to serve until another person is vetted and comes up for confirmation. 

    The senate, as it did in 2020 with the Department of Transportation secretary, could just not bring up the position for confirmation.  This is not the way government should function.

    When board member Steve Willett was ending his term in 2004, Gov. Doyle appointed Jane Wiley, from Wausau, but the senate held up confirmation of the appointment.

Wiley diligently waited patiently travelling to and attending board meetings while sitting in the audience for more than two years to keep up on issues, until the senate confirmed her in 2007.

    So, the state senate, especially if it is controlled by a party different from the Governor’s, can “play games” and hold up people from serving.

    The late Herb Behnke, from Shawano, was appointed to the previous Wis. Conservation Commission by Gov. Knowles from 1968 to 1972, and then Tommy Thompson reappointed Behnke to the NRB from 1989 to 2006.

Behnke is one of the most respected of all board members, but Gov. Doyle wanted to get some of his appointments on the board, though didn’t have an opening.

Behnke told this writer that the governor had the DNR secretary visit him in the evening prior to a board meeting saying that he would be replaced at the meeting the next day, but Behnke knew that couldn’t happen.

Scott Hassett, then DNR secretary and now an attorney for a Madison firm, says it wasn’t that harsh.

Hassett said that he was new in the job at the time and his boss, Governor Doyle, asked him to approach Behnke and see if he would consider resigning so that Doyle would be able to appoint someone else.  Behnke would have none of that.

Hassett admits it was “awkward,” at the time, but eventually the governor came to realize that Behnke was an “institution” on the board.

However when it came close to the end of his term, Behnke indicated that he would be willing to resign, after serving several terms, if he knew that someone with good natural resources credentials would replace him.

Behnke agreed to an interview with this reporter, indicating his willingness to resign, whereupon Doyle subsequently appointed Dave Clausen, veterinarian from Amery, to replace him.

Almost full-time job

    Tim Andryk served as an attorney for DNR for 30 years and retired in 2016 after being chief legal counsel for four years.  He has seen many board members come and go.

    “It’s a challenging job and they are volunteers who put in a lot of time.  It’s almost another full-time job,” Andryk said.

    He said that each governor has his own agenda and normally governors look for someone who will reflect the governor’s priorities and direction for DNR.

    The Governor also may be receiving advice from constituents and groups who’ve helped to elect him. 

    Duke Welter, of Viroqua, served on the Natural Resources Board from 2004, when he filled an unexpired term for Tryg Solberg, and then as an appointee by Gov. Doyle until 2011.

    Welter, who had a diverse background working as a journalist, lawyer and volunteer with Trout Unlimited, also served on the Conservation Congress but he waited two-and-a-half years for confirmation by the senate.

    “It is important to have a broad range of resource interests, even if you aren’t an expert,” Welter said of qualifications for serving on the board.  “It helps if you have experience with people and groups working on resources around the state, whether that’s as a volunteer or agency experience.

    Welter had worked in the trenches when sportsmen were resisting efforts by Perrier to put a water bottling plant near the McCann River, a move that had been supported by then-Gov. Tommy Thompson, but failed due to concerns over pollution to and misuse of groundwater.

    Welter said that a lot of good board members have an area of expertise that they brought to the board, as an example Jonathan Ela knew air and water quality issues, and Dave Clausen had veterinary experience bringing excellent credentials for knowledge of chronic wasting disease.

    Board meetings were often two days, sometimes including a field outing to see first-hand resource issues followed by a day’s meeting.  Welter said board members receive a “green sheet” packet of materials to review, and may be asked to attend meetings of conservation groups in the area or represent the DNR at a local event.

    Welter said that one thing he thought was very beneficial when on the board was holding public “listening sessions” when the board met at different locations around the state.  This helped local people bring concerns to the NRB.

    The Natural Resources Board helps to keep some semblance of a screen from partisan politics and brings diverse backgrounds into the natural resource process.

NRB and DNR Secretary 

    The Natural Resources Board used to not only have the power of setting policy, but also appointed the secretary of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The board appointed the secretary of the DNR up until 1995, but then Gov. Tommy Thompson grabbed control by changing the DNR to a cabinet agency with the secretary appointed by the governor.

    In previous years, the board’s predecessor, the Conservation Commission, also had citizen appointees and there was more of a mixture as governors changed after two-year terms.

    However, Governor Pat Lucey was not happy with a two-year term and got the legislature to change the governor’s term to four years, which gave Lucey, and succeeding governors, twice the influence and could more easily have a board dominated by that governor’s political persuasion.

Not long after the board was dominated by Lucey appointees, the board fired long-time DNR secretary Les Voigt, who came up through the agency and had served under Democrat and Republican governors, and hired Democratic politician Tony Earl.

Earl was one of the first DNR secretaries to head the agency without any natural resources experience.

Meyer values board

    George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, served as DNR secretary from 1993 to 2002 and had worked for DNR as a staff attorney and enforcement division administrator since 1972.

Meyer has enormous respect for the board system.

    “The board brings grassroots input into decision-making regarding conservation and environmental issues,” Meyer said. 

    Board members, each with different experiences, blend the science brought forth by DNR professionals, with ramifications of policies on day-to-day citizens.

“It leads to a more balanced approach to managing natural resources, and often a much more practical one,” Meyer said.

Meyer said the board brings seven other perspectives to the debate on natural resources, and they catch things that might not otherwise have been thought of.

Citizens also have access to board members throughout the state, which can bring support for natural resource proposals.

The downside is that once in a while Meyer said he’d get a proposal from a board member that was questionable, which required time to work with the individual member to explain the ramifications.

“But by-in-large I saw value added by the board, either bringing new ideas in or validating that what was proposed made sense,” Meyer said.

The governor can appoint people of his general philosophy, Meyer said, but has the obligation to appoint level-headed people.

“Most important is that they have strong natural resources values and are open-minded,” Meyer said.

    Board members should be collegial with other board members and able to compromise as a board as a whole.

    They also need to have respect for DNR staff, Meyer said, as the staff are hard-working people with strong resource values.

    Meyer said he found the governor would ask him for recommendations on potential board members, but the DNR staff also must vet the possible appointee for natural resources legal violations and whether they hold permits involving environmental pollution laws.

    Meyer served as DNR secretary both when it was independent, with the secretary appointed by the board, and when it was a cabinet agency with the governor appointing the secretary.

    “Clearly I support a board-appointed secretary, because it gives the secretary the ability to fully apply sound natural resources policy,” Meyer said.

    The secretary is always aware of political ramifications, but can make much more independent decisions when hired by a board.

    “The governor is well-served by making appointees of strong mind, he is not served by appointing ‘yes men,’” Meyer said.

    Meyer complimented Tommy Thompson who wanted a strong cabinet and wanted secretaries to push back when he put out ideas.  The end result, Meyer said, was better ideas.

Hassett experience

    Scott Hassett, an attorney with a Madison law firm, was selected to serve as secretary of the DNR by Governor Jim Doyle from 2003 to 2006.

    Hassett, an avid musky fisherman and outdoorsman, had extensive knowledge of board members as his father, Paul Hassett, served as chief of staff to Governor Warren Knowles in the 1960s.

Hassett had gone fishing and hunting with many past board members, such as Arthur MacArthur, as well as Gov. Warren Knowles, who was an avid fisherman.  Hassett’s father, a Republican, pushed for legislation that protected clean water and good quality of life in Wisconsin.

Hassett admits that there is pro-and-con working with a board from the DNR secretary’s standpoint.

“The downside is there can always be friction, knowing who is in charge of what and who has jurisdiction over matters,” Hassett said.

“The board sets policy and the secretary is in charge of operations, but there is a big gray area in between which is where you can get friction,” he said.

Hassett said there can be tensions when the board wants to get into operations and the administration pushes back.

    “On the other hand, the board can be a huge plus, they genuinely want to do the right thing and they can provide cover for the administration on rules or programs (that aren’t popular),” he said.

    Hassett said often Knowles would appoint board members who were active hunters and anglers, while Doyle would appoint people who had more of an environmental background.

    Though governors appoint board members, they can receive advice from the agency and organizations.  For instance, Hassett had known Christine Thomas, dean of the College of Natural Resources at UW-Stevens Point, while they both served on the Natural Resources Foundation board of directors, and when Doyle was considering people to appoint Hassett recommended Thomas for a board position.  She was appointed and was a strong advocate for natural resources.

    Another person whom Doyle appointed was Duke Welter, who was already on Doyle’s list of possible appointments, but Hassett said he was able to also provide a recommendation for Welter.

    Previous DNR secretaries realize the value of an independent secretary and the role that citizen board members can make for good natural resources management.

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