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.

Just because Hunters can, do we need to?

I do everything because I hunt.

Hunters, in general, have been dedicated conservationists, and they have been the financial and vocal support for natural resource programs that have sustained many resources, including many non-game and endangered species.

Hunters have been fortunate to have had forefathers the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, J.N. “Ding” Darling, and Aldo Leopold, who helped establish systems and standards that have guided our hunting heritage.

But, that is not to say that all hunters and all hunting is right or correct.

Wisconsin is now in the midst of pressure from an out-of-state Hunter Nation that is no help to the image of hunting and hunters, just as is Ted Nugent when he appears in public as an advocate for hunting.

Let me 100% clear, Ted Nugent and Hunter Nation do NOT speak for me and I think they portray (with the constant goal of kill-kill-kill and liberalize every hunting season) the extreme worst examples of hunters as totally me-oriented!

Hunting is much more than killing, it is all about the experience of being outdoors and having a QUALITY and ethical experience.

Eliminating the requirement for new hunters to have to pass a field test demonstrating that they can handle firearms responsibly, is short-sided. Hunter education has helped to reduce hunting accidents tremendously and having someone demonstrate that they can handle a firearm, keep their finger off the trigger and point the muzzle in a safe direction should be mandatory for every new hunter.

Opening a season to hunt sandhill cranes in Wisconsin is a mistake, and will just turn more people who are non-hunters against hunting and hunters.

The vast majority of the voting population are non-hunters (which is much different than anti-hunters) who allow hunting to continue as long as it is managed professionally and with ethical behavior.

Sandhill cranes are an iconic species that have come back from near extinction and are welcomed by many. Biologists have determined that opening a hunting season will make no difference on cranes that damage farmers’ crops in the spring.

Yet, Hunter Nation and the conservative right are trying to portray these changes under the guise of being pro-hunter, pro-farmer, and being used to recruit new hunters.

We have many species to hunt in the state and opening a hunting season on cranes will do more to damage the image of hunters in the eyes of the non-hunting public.

Just because we “can” hunt sandhill cranes, does that mean that it is the right thing to hunt sandhill cranes? Will we lose more than what we gain?

Have we totally lost our compass of why we enjoy the outdoors and the fact that the natural resources are most important, and those of us who pursue the resources are secondary?

Events like contests where the person who kills the most rabbits or coyotes, sponsored by local businesses, have no business being called hunting. They should be outlawed.

Proposals such as allowing dog owners to turn their dogs loose on public lands during the nesting season, are poorly thought out. This could disturb nesting birds which are the main reason that many hunters own dogs to use for pursuing and retrieving game in the fall.

Disrupt nesting birds and there could be far fewer birds to hunt in the fall.

We put up with fenced-in deer farms, some of which are open to “hunting,” (if Wisconsin sportsmen were smart they would follow the example in Minnesota and buy out deer farms), we allow bars and organizations to host shooting contests that bring in the most coyotes or rabbits in a day and win prizes, we allow hunters to carry firearms that look like – but are not – repeating firearms that the general public considers as weapons.

I hunt with a firearm, not a weapon. Using a single shot, double barrel, over-and-under, pump action, semi-automatic firearm has worked for hundreds of years, why would we need the firearm that looks like an automatic weapon and antagonize non-hunters who are concerned about people carrying around “automatic weapons” in the fields, woods and marshes?

The phrase: “We have met the enemy and they are us,” has merit. It’s time to step back and look at ourselves, and see hunting and hunters as the general public does and return to our roots as conservationists who realize we need the support of hunters AND non-hunters alike to really preserve our traditions and manage wildlife for the future.

Legislators are Eviscerating Wisconsin’s DNR

The saying is, “If you don’t remember your history, it is bound to repeat itself.”
That’s often true and for those of us concerned about Wisconsin’s natural resources we are seeing history repeat itself.
Then
In the early 1900s, politicians passed laws involving natural resources, while they had no advanced education or knowledge of what should be done to manage the resources.
They went by the seat of their pants or by what their friends and financial supporters thought should be done.
Realizing that they needed a more “knowledgeable and unbiased” way of having the state’s natural resources managed, they established commissions to hire people with knowledge to run programs.
There was a three-man fish commission established in 1874, a three-man forestry commission in 1897, and a Conservation Commission in 1908 which was reauthorized in 1911.
The result was that the Wisconsin Conservation Department, with backing of conservationists, was created in 1927, to provide management with science-based knowledge.
The same exasperation with politicians meddling in natural resources was responsible for the establishment of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
According to George Meyer, past executive director, The Wisconsin Wildlife Federation (WWF) was formed in 1949, after the then-governor Oscar Rennebohm rejected the deer hunting season that had been adopted by the Wisconsin Conservation Commission.
“He had a wealthy donor who thought he knew better how to manage the deer herd,” Meyer said.
The governor demanded that the Commission set the season the way his donor wanted, and sportsmen of the state were fed up and decided to get all of the various clubs together to have a voice.
“It was a rebellion against the political establishment,” Meyer said, noting that politics in natural resources never goes away.
The point was to have natural resources management decisions made by an organization that hired people who were trained in the natural sciences.
Now
Again today, legislators have become upset that they don’t have more control over how natural resources are managed, and they have been chipping away at authority the DNR used to have.
They’re clawing back any authority that used to be held by the DNR.
Opening dates of gun deer, fishing, and elk seasons? Now established by the legislature.
Regulations such as feeding and baiting of deer? Now established by the legislature.
Use of dogs for training to hunt bears? Now in statute by the legislature.
Apostle Island muzzleloader hunt? Set by the legislature.
A year-round open season on woodchucks? Set by the legislature.
Opening of the wolf hunt? The legislature set the original wolf hunting season to start Oct. 15, when pelts were not prime. They then had to correct the season to start Nov. 1.
Another case in point: Wisconsin has had
the Gaylord Nelson/Warren Knowles Stewardship program that allows the state to purchase available land for public recreation. That land could otherwise be sold and available to only the landowner, rather than available to everyone to hunt, fish, trap, cross country ski or hike.
But legislators, especially those in the north, are unhappy that land that could be owned by private landowners, and on the tax rolls, is now public land. They forget that the State makes payments-in-lieu-of- taxes to local units of government for land taken off the tax rolls.
They also forget that public land, much of which is located up north, also draws people from southern Wisconsin adding to the local economies.
The Stewardship Program used to be a 10-year program, and would have been as proposed by Governor Evers in his initial budget, but legislators discarded that and only passed a program good for four years.
They also put on additional restrictions, so that when the state does come to an agreement on land it still has to be approved by legislators, and if some isolated legislator decides to pull the rug out it stops the purchase cold.
And, yet on things that the legislature is supposed to be doing, such as confirming appointments to boards and departments, the legislature sits on its hands.
We have a state transportation secretary who is serving unconfirmed.
We had a state tourism secretary who served for more than a year unconfirmed.
We have a very big controversy over the Natural Resources Board chair who is serving because the State Senate can’t take the time to hold a confirmation hearing.
Legislators give as the excuse they’ve been working on the budget all year and can’t take up the confirmation process.
Yet, the group who makes the budget is the 16-member Joint Finance Committee which means that the remaining 116 legislators who are drawing $53,000 per year couldn’t take the time to hold confirmation hearings.
Give me a break!
Of course, Governor Tony Evers waited until the last minute to nominate a board replacement, who could have been nominated a month earlier giving legislators a month to hold hearings, since it’s well known that board member terms end May 1.
Politicians like to take their whacks at the DNR, and seem to enjoy picking apart the DNR to neuter its power. Past Gov. Scott Walker did that whenever he could, as he and then Sen. Tom Tiffany saw to it that the DNR science services section was emasculated.
And it’s not just Republicans who have pulled the rug out from under the DNR, as then Gov. Jim Doyle ran on a platform of returning the appointment of the Secretary of the DNR to the NRB, saying often: “Send me the bill and I’ll sign it.”
When the legislature did indeed send him the very bill he’d promised to sign, he vetoed it.
In the end we are seeing where biological knowledge and professional background of natural resource employees are not only ignored, but politicians are taking matters into their own hands.
We need to return management of natural resources to the DNR and really base it on science.
The past has become our future.

Let’s Work Together to Confront Today’s Challenges


     Human beings faced extraordinary challenges in 2020, the likes of which most of us had never faced.

Likewise, the environment is facing extreme challenges, from CWD in the deer herd and VHS in fish, diseases killing oak and ash trees, shortages of clean water, draining of wetlands, loosening of environmental standards during the previous eight years by the federal government, and loss of independence of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

     There are important underlying concerns, such as the loss of touch that today’s citizens have with natural resources (i.e. where meat and heat come from), and youngsters who would rather play indoors with video games than go outside.  Of course, the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree, and it seems there are many adults who would rather sit on the couch and watch football than go out and slog through a marsh to put out a dozen decoys or walk a mile to a deer stand.

     Just as concerning is the growing divide between those who hunt and those who do not hunt.  Some hunters seem to think that everything they do is acceptable, and they deride those who don’t hunt because they don’t buy a hunting, fishing or trapping license.

     That is evident in some of the letters to the editor in outdoor newspapers who deride non-hunters as “fools” who “understand nothing,” or constantly chastise natural resources volunteers, and agency employees, who are trying to find solutions to problems.  That type of name calling is defamatory, serves no purpose, and is sure to drive a wedge further between hunters and non-hunters.

     This is no different than racial bigotry, chastising someone due to their beliefs rather than color of their skin.

     People who are clad in blaze orange or camouflage have many reasons to be proud of what past hunters have done and how hunting and fishing and trapping have been the backbone of conservation in the United States.  Indeed, the North American Model of Wildlife conservation, called one of the greatest success stories in the world, realizes that what sportsmen have done with their license dollars and political support of conservation, has been responsible for the abundance of many wildlife populations.

     But, take your blinders off and you’ll see that those who do not hunt or fish have also been active in the conservation field. Take a look at what the Madison Audubon Society or The Nature Conservancy have done to preserve native habitat and save rural land from being paved over and “developed” into housing sub-divisions.

     And, lest you weren’t paying attention during eighth-grade civics, you would have learned that in the United States wildlife belong to ALL the people, so everyone does have a right to have a say in how ducks, wolves, bears and all wildlife are managed. 

     The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that there were a little over 1-million waterfowl hunters in the U.S. during 2016. About the same time FWS estimated there were about 45 million birders in the United States: There’s more of them than us!

     A major problem is that these people haven’t had an easy way to provide financial help to the states and federal government.  Sure, you can say it’s easy to buy a hunting or fishing license, but if you don’t hunt or fish, why?

     States and the Feds need a product, license, or meaningful method for non-hunters to purchase so that money can go into the same state conservation fund as hunters and anglers.

     Is it that the state, and hunter interests, are afraid to let non-hunters “into the game” for fear they will grab more power?

     There is often a lot of concern about “anti-hunters,” and indeed there are people who don’t believe in hunting, fishing or trapping.  Some are strictly vegetarian.

      To those who are anti-harvest, they have the right to what they believe and they should be tolerated, but not bashed or persecuted.

     Indeed, the critical mass is the great majority in the middle who do not hunt or fish or trap, but realize the benefits and are willing to continue these outdoor traditions as long as they are ethically conducted and regulated with scientific management.  These are the people whom outdoorsmen need to pay more attention to.

     Both a person’s conduct in the outdoors, and just as important their conduct and “image” indoors at public meetings and events, and their letters to the editor, can turn those middle-ground supporters into a majority against hunting, fishing and trapping. The key to the future of outdoor sports is in the behavior and actions of today’s hunters, anglers and trappers.

     An official with the Montana Fish, wildlife and Parks Department said it well: “People are not necessarily concerned with the fact that we hunt, but rather how we hunt.”  He could have added the words: “How we represent ourselves as hunters to the public.”  

     Everyone should pay to protect natural resources!  We all need clean air and water, enjoy seeing eagles and herons, and walking in public wildlife management areas.  It is time that we all participated in funding these programs.

     People who hunt, fish and trap have paid much in licenses, stamps, excise taxes and donations to conservation organizations.

     It is time for a broad general funding mechanism for natural resources.  Missouri uses a percentage of the state sales tax and Minnesota showed it was light-years ahead of Wisconsin by establishing the Minnesota Legacy Fund.

     Minnesota was also light years ahead of Wisconsin because they banded hunters and non-hunters, (even a few of those “evil” art lovers), together to pass the increased tax.  They did it together!

     Wisconsin once used a penny-a-pack on cigarettes for purchasing land, and though legislators are shy about new taxes it is time for a way to pluck a downy feather from the public goose. The options are many, but something needs to be used. 

     Changes needed in Wisconsin?

·         Adopt a new “conservation license” allowing non-hunters to buy it and pay into the state Conservation Fund, the same as those who hunt, fish and trap, without requiring them to buy a hunting, fishing or trapping license.

·         Outlaw the “organized” killing contests where bars and organizations give prizes for the most coyotes, rabbits, etc. killed within a given time period.  Hunting is NOT about killing and it is NOT competitive.

·         Require non-toxic ammunition for all hunting, including shotgun, rifle, and fishing lures.

·         Do away with firearms that look like “military or automatic weapons.”  What hunters use is a firearm, NOT a weapon.  Single shot, double barrel, over-and-under, pump and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns have been adequate for centuries.

     We also need to return to an independent DNR and secretary selected by the Natural Resources Board. Tommy Thompson upset the apple cart when he turned the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) into a cabinet agency.  Scott Walker put the nail in the coffin of the DNR by considering its mission as being “pro-business,” caving in to power-hungry northern politicians to eviscerate its science services bureau, and install a secretary who parroted the mantra that, “We can have good business while having a clean environment,” which sounds good while scientists and proposed pollution protections were shown the door.

     The DNR began leaking employees as they became eligible for retirement or grabbed by other agencies, and employees the likes of Randy Stark, Paul DeLong, and Jack Sullivan are now long gone.

It can no longer be independent of political influence as long as the governor appoints the secretary.

The citizen board was a far cleaner system and Missouri has the best system where three commissioners are of the conservative party and three are of the liberal party.  That way they HAVE to get together and they often have a way of looking toward the long-term outlook of natural resources rather than the short-term vision of politicians who can only see as far as the next election.

     Wisconsin needs to change and allow the citizen Natural Resources Board to select the secretary, as it (and its predecessor the Conservation Commission) did from 1927 to the mid-1990s.  And if we want to improve the system, require that three Democrats and three Republicans always serve on the seven-member board, so that the legislature and governor would always have an open ear to listen to at least some of the board members.

     Wisconsin has a rich conservation history.  It has been home to Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Gaylord Nelson, Warren Knowles, Harley MacKenzie and Ernie Swift, among others.

     Wisconsin is also where devoted volunteers, not so well known, work behind the scenes to improve natural resources. Look at the resumes of men and women now enshrined in the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame in Stevens Point.

     Volunteers and professional resources staff continually work with committees, boards, agencies, and organizations to protect and improve natural resources.  In the past they have made Wisconsin truly unique in natural resources, and what is needed is for those who hunt and those who do not to mend their ways to work together on the bigger challenges faced today.

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.

With this Legislature, inaction is good.

There may not be many good things coming from the pandemic, which has affected just about everything, but it did curtail the legislature from continuing its session!

     Yes, there have been good legislative actions, such as passage of the Knowles/Nelson Stewardship Program and approving state duck, pheasant and turkey stamps to fund management of those species.

     But legislators think they know it all and they want to set more rules by statute, but if natural resources rules and regulations created by statute need to be changed it then requires the legislative process, which is slow, cumbersome and not a sure thing.

     Originally legislators passed natural resource laws, until realizing it made sense to delegate conservation rules to the Conservation Commission, which is now the Natural Resources Board.

     Now legislators continually try to claw back power and authority.

     For instance, if the DNR or Natural Resources Board wanted to make changes in the following season regulations they could NOT without having the legislature meet and go through a lengthy process of debating and passing a bill:

  • Opening date of the gun deer hunting season.
  • Opening of the gamefish fishing season.
  • Further restrictions on baiting and feeding of deer.
  • Date that the opening of the wolf hunting season can begin.
  • Opening of elk hunting season.
  • Restrictions on crossing railroad tracks to hunt or fish on public lands.

     It’s particularly frustrating to sit through a legislative committee hearing and hear a state legislator try to justify that DNR shouldn’t make the rules because “they are not elected.”

     Legislators forget that DNR has input from trained ecologists AND citizens through public hearings AND the Conservation Congress.

Give me a break!  Legislators need to relinquish their hunger for power and let professionals with knowledge manage natural resources.   We can breathe a little easier now, even wearing a mask, with the legislature not meeting.

DNR Losing Valuable Knowledge Base

 How can those who don’t know about the past, make plans to advance in the future?
        Just like keeping a comfortable old flannel shirt, there is value in keeping “older things.”
When it comes to buildings many are saved and classified on historic registers, realizing that there is value in preserving history.
        But, the institutional knowledge of people is often discarded by employers as employees retire, including at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
        In past years, it wasn’t surprising to find dedicated retired employees in wildlife research and management continuing their interest in wildlife and often volunteering with different conservation groups (such as Pheasants Forever, the Sharp-tailed Grouse Society, Ducks Unlimited, Wisconsin Waterfowl Association, Whitetails Unlimited, etc.) as well as participating at DNR species management advisory committees.
        The committees are usually made up of current DNR biologists, law enforcement, customer service, and research professions, along with DNR field staff, representatives of some stakeholder organizations, most notably the Conservation Congress and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
It was not unusual in the past to have retirees attend and participate at the committee meetings, able to relate their experience.
        The committees review and provide guidance on policies, plans, season structures, harvest quotas, and project funding. 
        But during the era when Scott Walker was governor, and Cathy Stepp served as DNR secretary, it became apparent that retired employees, and even some university faculty, were no longer welcome at the meetings.
        Tom Hauge, retired DNR director of Wildlife Management, confirms that a couple years after Cathy Stepp took over as DNR secretary, was when changes occurred.  He said that there were frustrations from groups such as the Hunters Rights Coalition that the advisory groups were completely DNR dominated, and they wanted more public input from stakeholder organizations especially before decisions were made.
        DNR retirees could participate if they represented a stakeholder group and usually the committee chair asks for comments from the public at the end of the meeting.
        Ed Frank, age 85 and retired DNR upland wildlife ecologist, said that it became clear that “We could attend, but we couldn’t speak unless the chair of the committee called on us.”
        Frank soon decided attending meetings for species that he had spent a career working on behalf of, wasn’t worth the time.
        Some of the trend may have coincided during a time when Scott Gunderson, past chair of the Assembly Natural Resources committee, was wanting to see big changes in the DNR deer program and Keith McCaffery, DNR northern deer research leader, retired from the DNR.
Tim VanDeelen was hired from Illinois to fill McCaffery’s position.
        McCaffery, who often refers to himself as a “failure at retirement”, continued to come into the office as a volunteer, even though he had retired. Gunderson was unhappy with that, telling this reporter that he feared that the “old guard” was still around and the new researcher couldn’t change the program.
        On the contrary.  VanDeelen, today Beers-Bascom professor in conservation for the UW-Madison Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, says that, “I enjoyed having Keith at the office. . .  and never once felt like I was constrained or prevented what I thought was best.
        “Keith was also a great resource.  His knowledge of the history of the deer program and the details of how the deer-harvest-permitting system behaved in different parts of Wisconsin was invaluable.”
        Van Deelen added that “Keith is one of the best friends that the deer hunters of this state ever had.  He was instrumental in building one of the best deer programs in the country.”
        But why retired employees are not welcomed remains a question that is also of concern to Bruce Gruthoff, age 81 and retired Wisconsin DNR wildlife biologist who later worked for and retired from Ducks Unlimited as Regional Director.
        Gruthoff is appalled that retired DNR employees, especially those in wildlife ecology, are not allowed to actively participate in committees that are established to help manage and plan for the future of species such as pheasants, ruffed grouse, prairie chickens, pheasants, or deer.
        He said that when he took over the prairie chicken project in the early 1970s he met regularly with Fred Hamerstrom, who had retired from the department, and Gruthoff obtained valuable information and advice from this world- renowned researcher.
        He said that was invaluable, and it illustrates problems today where past managers are not allowed to participate in meetings about species that they used to be involved with.
        The history that employees have and relationships they have developed with the public, especially private landowners, are invaluable, and should be seen as assets rather than liabilities. 
        Jim Keir, retired DNR biologist in Wisconsin Rapids, said that, “It makes no sense to me that retirees in general have accumulated years of expertise and to not make use of that makes no sense.”
        Keir spent more than 20 years on the Buena Vista Marsh area.
        John Kubisiak, retired long time ruffed grouse and deer researcher with DNR, said that he had served briefly on committees but then was not advised of committee meetings or dates and was in essence “summarily dismissed after retiring.”
        Keith McCaffery, retired DNR deer researcher, said he was prohibited from species advisory committees along with other retirees and university staff during the Stepp era.  He doesn’t believe that much has changed since then.
        What he terms as “vicious” legislative leadership and appointees from the previous administration still prompt many concerns for people concerned about the management and future of the state’s natural resources.
        The question was put to the DNR and Beth Bier, DNR deputy secretary, explains that several years ago changes were made to the structure of the species management committees in response to concerns that they had grown too large and unwieldly and were not functioning in a way that provided clear stakeholder input to the DNR.
        Previous DNR leadership approved the policies, though Bier said that retired DNR staff are not prohibited from being on the committees if they are a representative of a stakeholder group.
        “They may also attend meetings as a member of the public,” she said.  Adding that it is important to continually assess operations and they will discuss with staff.
        “While our DNR retirees have a lot of expertise and passion to bring to the table, we do want to ensure diverse points of view are present.”
        All good points, and to be sure large committees can be unwieldly, and current employees need to have the freedom to do what they are trained for, paid for, and feel is correct.
        BUT, dis-inviting retirees who have the interest and passion to contribute their experience and knowledge is a waste of resources the State has long invested in.  The new “resource friendly” administration needs to take a look at its policies.

Renewing old acquaintances with Nina Leopold Bradley, daughter of the late Aldo Leopold, were some of Leopold’s students at a 2003 celebration of wildlife management and research at the Leopold Shack near Baraboo., Wisconsin. (L to R): Harry Stroebe, Arman Schwingle, Jim Hale Nina Leopold Bradley, Bob Wendt, Ruth Hine (seated), George Hartman, Don Thompson and Cliff Germain. Photo Copyright Tim Eisele

Changes needed in Wisconsin

Human beings have been facing extraordinary challenges in 2020, the likes of which most of us alive today have never faced.

But the environment is likewise facing extreme challenges, from CWD in the deer herd and VHS in fish, diseases killing oak and ash trees, shortages of clean water, draining of wetlands, loosening of environmental standards by the federal government, and loss of independence of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

      There are important underlying concerns, such as the loss of touch that today’s citizens have with natural resources (i.e. where meat and heat come from), and youngsters who would rather play indoors with video games than go outside.  Of course, the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree, and it seems there are many adults who would rather sit on the couch and watch football than go out and slog through a marsh to put out a dozen decoys or walk a mile to a deer stand.

      Just as concerning is the growing divide between those who hunt and those who do not hunt.  Some hunters seem to think that everything they do is acceptable, and they deride those who don’t hunt because they don’t buy a hunting, fishing or trapping license.

      That is evident in some of the letters to the editor in outdoor publications who deride non-hunters as “fools” who “understand nothing,” or constantly chastise natural resources employees and volunteers who are trying to find solutions to problems.  That type of name calling is defamatory, serves no purpose, and is sure to drive a wedge further between hunters and non-hunters.

     This is no different than racial bigotry, chastising someone due to their beliefs rather than color of their skin.

      People who are clad in blaze orange or camouflage have many reasons to be proud of what past hunters have done and how hunting, fishing and trapping have been the backbone of conservation in the United States.  Indeed, the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, called one of the greatest success stories in the world, realizes that what sportsmen have done with their license dollars and political support for conservation, has been responsible for abundance of many wildlife populations.

      But, take your blinders off and you’ll see that those who do not hunt or fish have also been active in the conservation field. Take a look at what organizations such as the Madison Audubon Society, The Prairie Enthusiasts or The Nature Conservancy have done to preserve native habitat and save rural land from being paved over and “developed” into housing sub-divisions.

      And, lest you weren’t paying attention during eighth-grade civics, you would have learned that in the United States wildlife belong to ALL the people, so everyone does have a right to have a say in how ducks, wolves, bears and all wildlife are managed. 

      The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that there were a little over 1-million waterfowl hunters in the U.S. during 2016. About the same time FWS estimated there were about 45 million birders in the U.S.:  There’s more of them than us!

      A major problem is that non-hunters haven’t had an easy way to provide financial help to the states and federal government.  Sure, you can say it’s easy to buy a hunting or fishing license; but if you don’t hunt or fish, why?

      States and the Feds need a product, license, or meaningful method for non-hunters to purchase so that money can go into the same state conservation fund as hunters and anglers.

      Is it that the state, and hunter interests, are afraid to let non-hunters “into the game” for fear they will grab more power?

      There is often a lot of concern about “anti-hunters,” and indeed there are people who don’t believe in hunting, fishing or trapping.  Some are strictly vegetarian.

      To those who are anti-harvest, they have the right to what they believe and they should be tolerated, but not bashed or persecuted.

      Indeed, the critical mass is the great majority in the middle who do not hunt or fish or trap, but realize the benefits and are willing to continue these outdoor traditions as long as they are ethically conducted and regulated by scientific management.  These are the people whom outdoorsmen need to pay more attention to.

      Both a person’s conduct in the outdoors, and just as important their conduct and “image” indoors at public meetings and events, and their letters to the editor, can turn those middle-ground supporters into a majority against hunting, fishing and trapping. The key to the future of outdoor sports is in the behavior and actions of today’s hunters, anglers and trappers.

      An official with the Montana Fish, wildlife and Parks Department said it well: “People are not necessarily concerned with the fact that we hunt, but rather how we hunt.”  He could have added the words: “How we represent ourselves as hunters to the public.”  

      Everyone should pay to protect natural resources!  We all need clean air and water, enjoy seeing eagles and herons, and walking in public wildlife management areas.  It is time that we all participated in funding these programs.

      People who hunt, fish and trap have paid much in licenses, stamps, excise taxes and donations to conservation organizations.

      But, it is time for a broad general funding mechanism for natural resources.  Missouri uses a percentage of the state sales tax and Minnesota showed it was light-years ahead of Wisconsin by establishing the Minnesota Legacy Fund.

      Minnesota was also light years ahead of Wisconsin because they banded hunters and non-hunters, (even a few of those “evil” art lovers), together to pass the increased tax.  They did it together!

      Wisconsin once used a penny-a-pack on cigarettes for purchasing land, and though legislators are shy about new taxes it is time for a way to pluck a downy feather from the public goose. The options are many, but something needs to be used. 

      We also need to return to an independent DNR and secretary selected by the Natural Resources Board. Then Governor Tommy Thompson upset the apple cart when he turned the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) into a cabinet agency.  Scott Walker put the nail in the coffin of the DNR by considering its mission as being “pro-business,” caving in to power-hungry northern politicians to eviscerate its science services bureau, and install a secretary who parroted the mantra that, “We can have business while having a clean environment,” which sounds good while DNR scientists and proposed pollution protections were shown the door.

      The DNR began leaking employees as they became eligible for retirement or grabbed by other agencies.  Exemplary employees the likes of Randy Stark, Paul DeLong, and Jack Sullivan are now long gone.

The DNR can no longer be independent of political influence as long as the governor appoints the secretary.

The citizen board was a far cleaner system and Missouri has the best system where three commissioners are of the conservative party and three are of the liberal party.  That way they HAVE to get together and board members often have a way of looking toward the long-term outlook of natural resources rather than the short-term vision of politicians who can only see as far as the next election.

      Wisconsin needs to change and allow the citizen Natural Resources Board to select the secretary, as it (and its predecessor the Conservation Commission) did from 1927 to the mid-1990s.  And if we want to improve the system, require that three Democrats and three Republicans always serve on the board, so that the legislature and governor would always have an open ear to listen to at least some of the board members.

      Wisconsin has a rich conservation history.  It has been home to Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Gaylord Nelson, Warren Knowles, Harley MacKenzie and Ernie Swift, C.D. “Buzz” Besadny, among others.

      Wisconsin is also where devoted volunteers, not so well known, work behind the scenes to improve natural resources. Look at the resumes of men and women now enshrined in the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame in Stevens Point.

      Volunteers and professional resources staff continually work with committees, boards, agencies, and organizations to protect and improve natural resources.  In the past they have made Wisconsin truly unique in natural resources, and what is needed is for those who hunt and those who do not to mend their ways, to work together on the bigger challenges faced today.