Madison — Five former secretaries of the Department of Natural Resources say they oppose a legislative proposal to break up the agency.
The former officials said a measure to carve out units of the DNR and place them in different agencies would be less efficient, cost more and limit the public’s ability to have a say in state natural resources matters.
In a letter to Gov. Scott Walker made public on Wednesday, they urged Walker to oppose the breakup, which would split environmental and natural resource functions. The letter is also being sent to members of the Legislature.
The Wisconsin Association of Retired Conservationists is echoing the same concerns, and on Wednesday the group of more than 300 former DNR employees also said it was sending its views about a breakup of the agency to the governor and lawmakers.
The former officials are:
Former Democratic Gov. Anthony Earl, who was secretary from 1975 to 1980; George Meyer, secretary from 1993 to 2001, who served under Republican Govs. Tommy Thompson and Scott McCallum; Darrell Bazzell, 2001 to 2003, who served McCallum; Scott Hassett, 2003 to 2007; and Matt Frank, 2007 to 2011. Both Hassett and Frank served under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.
Also signing the letter was Bruce Braun, who was deputy secretary for late DNR Secretary C.D. “Buzz” Basadny, who ran the agency from 1980 to 1992 and was appointed by the Natural Resources Board.
Rep. Adam Jarchow (R-Balsam Lake) is proposing legislation to split up the agency.
Some of the key features:
- Create a Department of Fish and Wildlife that would handle all the duties of wildlife and fisheries units, including fish and game enforcement.
- Create a Department of Environmental Protection that would handle environmental issues such as air regulation, ground and watershed management, drinking water, lake and river protections, and dam safety.
- Transfer parks, state trails and southern forests to the Department of Tourism.
- Transfer forestry operations and the state’s northern forests to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
The idea of breaking up the DNR has long been debated. In 2006, then-U.S. Rep. Mark Green (R-Green Bay) touted the idea in his unsuccessful bid for governor. Before that, then-Assembly Speaker John Gard (R-Peshtigo) pushed the proposal.
Jarchow said the breakup would make the agency more efficient and responsive to the public.
As a lawmaker representing a rural area, Jarchow said that much of the feedback he receives from constituents is on fish and wildlife issues, environmental permits and zoning problems on lakefront properties.
He said his proposal could change as legislators and the public weigh in. But he said his ideas are in place elsewhere. Many other states, including Minnesota and Michigan, split natural resources and environmental enforcement responsibilities. His proposal to move many forestry operations to the state agriculture department is patterned after the federal government, where the U.S. Forest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture.
A chief aim of the plan is to ensure the DNR "protects air and water but in a way that does not inhibit a good business project," he said.
Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Jarchow has studied the issue closely and called his ideas, "interesting." Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and Assembly Speak Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said they wanted more details, but were open in principle to a split of the agency.
But the former secretaries criticized the measure on several fronts:
- Fisheries and water quality are closely interrelated and would be split into different departments.
- Forestry and wildlife management are also closely related and would be split, as well.
- Law enforcement would be separated into different agencies outside the DNR, which would be confusing to the public.
- The citizen-led Natural Resources Board would still provide oversight over a fish and wildlife agency, but there would be no citizen oversight for a Department of Environmental Protection.
Meyer, who is executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said Walker and the Legislature should give DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp time to carry out a reorganization plan of the agency she detailed late last year.
The Wisconsin Association of Retired Conservationists said the move would "cripple the ability" of the Legislature and the public to work on resource issues when issues are split between different agencies.