Walker aims for changes to DNR

Lee Bergquist
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Referring to changes in his proposed budget, Gov. Scott Walkers says he's not advocating for a wholesale breakup of the DNR

Gov. Scott Walker's call for a study on whether to shift regulation of large livestock farms to the state agriculture department generated much of the attention in natural resources circles.

But Walker's budget last week also touched other key areas within the Department of Natural Resources: forests, parks and the department's magazine. Walker signaled, however, he's not advocating for a wholesale breakup of the DNR.

If recent history is any indication, expect to see Republican lawmakers who control the Legislature push for more changes in environmental policy with the DNR in the coming months.

Some of the highlights in the 2017-'19 budget:

Large farms. Walker ordered the DNR and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to study sending the regulation of concentrating animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, to the agriculture department.

The agriculture agency is seen as being more farm-friendly than the DNR, and environmentalists are concerned that large dairy farms and their handling of vast quantities of manure will not face as close of scrutiny if such a move occurs. The CAFO program has problems, as evidenced by a critical audit last summer, and farm groups say the agriculture department has many tools to do a better job.

Forests. The DNR's chief forester would relocate to an existing office north of Highway 29 — the highway that runs from Green Bay to just west of Eau Claire.

The agency is also offering to move about 55 forestry employees working in Madison to state facilities in the north.

Northern lawmakers have been pushing for such a move for several years. The rationale: Have foresters work closer to state, county and national forests where the lion's share of logging takes place, although many are already located outside Madison. Fred Souba Jr., a former paper industry executive, was appointed to the post of chief forester in November. He lives in Wisconsin Rapids.

The Governor's proposed budget would allow the DNR to change its fee structure at high-demand parks to boost revenue.

Parks. Visitors to high-demand state parks are likely to pay higher fees.

The budget would allow the DNR to change its fee structure to boost revenue. Two years ago, the Legislature cut general purpose funding for parks — a move that is forcing the agency to look for new sources of revenue.

The parks that most likely will see increases are Devil's Lake, Governor Dodge, High Cliff, Kohler-Andrae, Peninsula and Willow River. In December, the agency outlined some possibilities, such as charging an extra $2 to $10 per night at popular parks.

Magazine. Walker wants to cease publication of the Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine a year from now.

The department-edited publication once took on politically charged topics but has steered clear of controversy for much of Walker's term. Budget documents show that the magazine would save the DNR $300,000 over the next two years. State documents also show that the magazine generates much of that revenue from subscription fees.

No split in the DNR. Walker agreed with a plan by Secretary Cathy Stepp to streamline the agency — and not split it up as Rep. Adam Jarchow (R-Balsam Lake) and others have advocated.

Walker said earlier that Jarchow's plan to spin off units like environmental enforcement and wildlife management into separate departments had merit.

In another sign that a wholesale breakup of the DNR is not likely, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said he does not believe lawmakers are interested in a split. "I don't see the Legislature going there," Fitzgerald said Thursday at a WisPolitics luncheon in Madison.

That prompted Jarchow to tweet: "Never a good sign when Senate Majority Leader throws cold water on your idea. Oh well. Will keep fighting for a DNR that works."