DNR giving large farms more say on regulations
Madison — State Department of Natural Resources officials said Wednesday they want to rely more on the work of consultants to draft environmental permits, including the manure handling practices of large-scale farms.
The DNR will still write final permits, but will develop so-called "assurance programs" so they can rely more on the accuracy of information provided by private parties. The new approach on permits is part of a series of organizational changes officials say will make the agency more efficient at a time when its workforce has shrunk to a 30-year low.
Other efforts include changes in law enforcement and property management responsibilities and a previously announced reassignment of a depleted science staff to specific units of the agency.
DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said the work reflects a 16-month makeover, prompted by dwindling agency resources and demands by Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-controlled Legislature to run the department in a more business-like manner.
The changes come as the DNR has been criticized by conservation organizations for what they see as lax enforcement of environmental laws since Stepp took over the agency in 2011.
The Legislative Audit Bureau in June found backlogs in the DNR's wastewater program for factories, municipalities and large farms. It also found the agency issued a small percentage of violation notices for the cases reviewed.
The audit also follows news reports of a drop-off in DNR enforcement activity in recent years, but Stepp cautioned the figures mask a greater willingness by the department to work with parties upfront to avoid violations in the first place.
Stepp said the realignment of responsibilities won't translate into weaker protections.
"We're not talking about changing standards — there are no regulation changes. That really needs to be emphasized here," Stepp said. "There's been some rumormongering out there.
"We are talking about how we meet or even exceed expectations that have been put upon us by the public, and other levels of government, and how do we do that in the most efficient way."
Department employment peaked at 3,114 in fiscal 1994-'95 and dropped 18% or 565 positions in the current budget, according to a recent Legislative Fiscal Bureau report to lawmakers.
The agency announced plans in July 2015 to re-evaluate the way it handles myriad functions, ranging from managing state parks to regulating air contaminants.
But as the process drew out, speculation grew that grander plans were in the works, such as spinning off the parks system to a separate state entity, or splitting environmental enforcement and wildlife functions into two departments, which some states do.
Stepp said such changes were never contemplated. Instead, she and other officials said they asked employees and outside parties for suggestions. The agency said the changes will affect about 5% of staff.
Some of the key changes:
Permit writing: The DNR will develop a program to turn over some time-consuming tasks of permit writing to experts in the private sector who are hired by a property owner or business seeking the permit. The agency plans to set benchmarks so that officials reviewing the permits can be assured that information they get from the consultants is accurate.
In the case of a large farm, the DNR would rely on engineers hired by the farm to provide information for construction projects and on agronomists to spell out methods for spreading manure. In both cases, permits are required to guard against mishandling of manure that could pollute groundwater or surface water.
Similar changes are planned with consultants for work like shoreland stabilization projects, landscaping and pond construction and other projects near waterways and wetlands. The DNR is drawing on its past experience with allowing experts in delineating wetland boundaries to do such work.
The result: Officials say it leaves more time to spot check projects and conduct field work for potential violations. The ultimate decision on whether to approve permits would remain in the hands of the DNR.
"We want to focus on compliance rather than the paperwork part of the process," said Mark Aquino, director of the Office of Business Support and External Services.
Amber Meyer Smith of Clean Wisconsin said, "One of the first questions is what will be the bigger impact on the landscape? Not just from one farm, but an accumulation of farms? You want someone looking at this from a comprehensive perspective."
Law enforcement: Law enforcement personnel will be redeployed from four different areas of the department, including parks, to the Bureau of Law Enforcement. The net effect will be the addition of 33 positions to the current 197 authorized positions.
Some employees at the DNR now spend a small amount of time on law enforcement. They will be relieved of those duties while a full-time parks ranger, for example, will join the ranks of conservation wardens to enforce fishing, hunting and environmental regulations.
Researchers reassigned: As previously announced, 19 researchers in the Bureau of Science Services will be reassigned to a new Office of Applied Science, where their research work will be tailored more closely to the needs of forestry, wildlife and fisheries managers.
The Legislature in 2015 cut research staffing by 31%. Environmental groups have complained the reshuffling will place less emphasis, long term, on habitat, wildlife and fish.
In 2013, science services worked with Northland College and the Department of Health Services to identify pollution problems from iron mining at a time when Gogebic Taconite was planning to construct a $1.5 billion open pit mine in northern Wisconsin. The 97-page report became the DNR's strongest analysis of the effects iron mining could pose.
Stepp said a study like this could still be done. But the agency might turn to outside experts. "I would argue that with certain audiences some studies have more credibility if they are not done internally because it could be perceived that the department has an agenda," Stepp said.
Shift in duties: The parks and recreation program will take over property management services — duties that are currently handled by wildlife and forestry personnel and others.
"We need to become more specialized," said Ben Bergey, director of state parks.
Another change is to move management of non-game species out of wildlife management to another unit of the agency.
Tom Hauge, who retired in September after 25 years as director of the Bureau of Wildlife, was critical of the plan.
"Philosophically and practically, that's a disappointment for me," Hauge said. "Just like we don't have a set of foresters for deciduous trees and another set for conifers in a different bureau, I think it works best to have wildlife management under one umbrella."
Paul Smith of the Journal Sentinel contributed to this story.