Politics are Taking Over Wisconsin’s Natural Resources

The system is out of whack.  We know that.

    The legislature is creating natural resources laws, rather than relying on the organizations they created to manage natural resources and recommend needed laws. 

    The Natural Resources Board is adopting regulations that are not backed by science provided by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

    The DNR is ignoring direction and votes of the Natural Resources Board.

    And, the governor seems to be placated by business as usual, though it’s obvious he is fighting to just “run” the state while the legislature does everything it can to fight against him.

    There is NO kumbaya in Wisconsin!

    How much is due to politics and how much is due to the general malaise, unhappiness and divisiveness within the country is unknown.  But you wouldn’t be wrong if you guessed the odds are 99-to-1 in favor of politics.

    Now, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin is hearing the case of the Attorney General against Dr. Frederick Prehn who continues to serve even though his term on the NRB ended.

Wisconsin Eye records the Supreme Court meeting in the case of Attorney General Joshua L. Kaul vs. Dr. Frederick Prehn. Photo by Tim Eisele

    Prehn was appointed by then-Gov. Scott Walker and he is one of four NRB members who were appointed by Walker and create a majority of conservative thinking.

     Board members generally are committed to doing what they feel is right for natural resources and the citizens of the state, but when they vote to ignore health standards and scuttle restrictions on pollutants (which are endorsed by the pro-business Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce), there is cause to wonder:  who are they representing?

    How can families, especially with young children, believe that the NRB has their best interests, when it ignores advice from the Department of Health Services in setting acceptable levels of contaminants?

    Synthetic chemicals such as PFAS do not break down in the environment for extremely long periods of time, they accumulate in the human body, fish and wildlife.  Exposure to PFAS may cause adverse health effects in humans!

    It would have been unthinkable years ago to accept that communities in this State have to get their drinking water out of plastic bottles.  But that is occurring now.

    It’s understandable that the board is heavy toward the conservative side, when appointed by a Republican governor, and at times toward the more liberal side when appointed by a Democrat governor.

    But generally past boards have congealed to “do the right thing” to protect the health of citizens.  That is no longer true.

    It is also clear that partisan politics has clearly come to the fore when the legislature finished its recent session and completely failed in its responsibility to hold a hearing that would have given it the opportunity to confirm, or deny, the newly appointed replacement for Dr. Prehn.

    This was a session that didn’t have to deal with a new state budget and it had plenty of time to hold hearings and do what it is mandated to do.  It completely whiffed, and it is now obvious that the Republicans in the legislature did NOT want to hold a hearing and thus allowed Dr. Prehn to stay on the board.

    The Attorney General filed a case with the Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments on March 10 and should issue its ruling by June 30.

    The justices’ questions were interesting, with Chief Justice Patience Roggensack, appearing to represent the majority, questioning whether a vacancy actually does exist.

    Prehn’s six-year term ended on April 31, 2021 and he has stayed on because the Senate has not yet confirmed the new appointee (Sandra Dee Naas), and Prehn bases his ability to stay on based on a 1964 court decision.

    Normally in the past an expiring board member would vacate the seat, allowing the newly appointed – but not yet confirmed – person to take his or her seat until they are confirmed or rejected.

    Yet, questions by Justice Jill Karofsky and Justice Rebecca Dallet were interesting, wondering if Prehn’s seat is not considered vacant, then the Senate just doesn’t have to hold a hearing and these board appointments could be essentially life-time appointments.

    Justice Brian Hagedorn even intimated that, based on the state Constitution, the governor has only limited ability to make appointments.  He wondered if the ability to make appointments belonged to the legislature.

    No matter what the decision is by the court, the system will still be broken.

If the court rules in favor of Dr. Prehn, he will be allowed to continue voting into 2023 or 2024 when a different legislature meets, and the system of staggered terms set forth since 1927 by founders such as Aldo Leopold, William Aberg and Haskell Noyes, Sr., is “roadkill.”

If the court rules against Dr. Prehn, he gamed the process by participating in votes and decisions that ignored and weakened advice from the Department of Health Services and DNR when he should have vacated his seat.  And, if his replacement eventually takes his place, she will have lost a full year of her term to participate and vote.

In addition, the rancor has taken attention away from natural resources problems, and brought an ugly stain to the reputation of the citizen board.

    One observer, Peter Peshek, respected retired environmental lawyer, has opined that the governor should show some leadership and organize a blue-ribbon commission to recommend changes to help put the natural resources train back on its tracks.  Peshek has even recommended five names of leading citizens with diverse backgrounds (George Meyer, Dr. Christine Thomas, John Torinus, Jr., Tom Diehl, and Kathleen Falk) who could take on that challenge.

    Meanwhile, our state’s natural resources system continues to be railroaded.

We should have been able to keep our eyes on the ultimate goal of always working to do better for the resources of this state.

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