Wisconsin DNR's new legal counsel backed looser environmental rules

Lee Bergquist
Wisconsin State Farmer
The Sauk Prairie State Recreation is a sprawling manufacturing complex that produced ammunition for the U.S. Army until 1975 has been demolished and is overseen by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

In a break from past practice, the Department of Natural Resources has gone outside of the agency to hire a new chief legal counsel by tapping a lawyer from a conservative public interest litigation group. 

Gov. Scott Walker has appointed Jake Curtis to manage legal affairs for an agency that oversees fish and game laws, regulates air and water regulations and deals with other legal issues ranging from management of public lands to the cleanup of polluted industrial sites.

The appointment marks the first time the DNR has hired someone from outside the department to manage legal matters and is the latest sign of the growing politicization of the agency.

Related:Wisconsin, under Scott Walker, no longer leads in conservation

Curtis, of Grafton, previously worked for the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and its Center for Competitive Federalism and has an extensive background in politics, including serving as a Wisconsin adviser to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign.  

At its launch in the summer of 2016, representatives indicated that the Center for Competitive Federalism planned to use the courts and write reports on what the organization sees as overreaching powers by the federal government on states.

As associate counsel at the center, Curtis in recent months has authored reports that:

• Supported recent action by the Legislature to end the moratorium on metallic mining, and disagreed with environmentalists’ claims that a now-closed copper, gold and silver mine near Ladysmith is a source of significant water pollution. Walker said he intends to sign the bill ending the moratorium, which could open the door to copper and other minerals for the first time since 1998.

• Argued that an air pollution monitor in Sheboygan County, which has historically reported ozone levels that exceed federal limits, was poorly located near Lake Michigan and capturing air pollutants drifting up the coastline, including Illinois and Indiana. The air violations have mandated stricter pollution limits that Curtis said will unfairly penalize the county’s manufacturing base and could lead to controls “where economic growth is essentially neutralized.”

Environmental groups have said such claims ignore the fact that the residents near the monitor are breathing unhealthy air.

Curtis joined the DNR on Monday. He has been an attorney for nearly 10 years, according to the DNR. He replaced Quinn Williams, a longtime attorney at the agency. Williams has moved to the Department of Administration.  

Wisconsin governors have exercised increased authority over the DNR since 1995 when Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson signed legislation giving governors the power to appoint the DNR secretary.

Gubernatorial control of the agency grew under Thompson and later under Jim Doyle, a Democrat, and has since increased under Walker. 

In 2011, legislation approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature changed the posts of legal counsel, legislative director and head of media affairs from civil service positions to appointments of the governor.

The appointment of Curtis is being questioned by a former secretary of the DNR as well as a liberal group often critical of Walker policies.

Former DNR Secretary George Meyer, who is currently executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, called Curtis’ appointment “very troubling.”

Meyer, an attorney, said that the department's chief legal counsel requires a lawyer to be well grounded in fish and game laws, tribal relations and intricacies of state and federal pollution laws.

A key facet of the job is to “provide objective, unbiased legal opinions to the decision-makers,” Meyer said. “This person seems to have far more of a political background than in conservation law.”

Meyer was secretary from 1993 to 2001 under Republican administrations and oversaw the DNR’s enforcement unit for 10 years.

Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal group, One Wisconsin Now, was also critical.

"Governor Walker's administration has now put an anti-environmental zealot and a hired gun as the chief legal counsel tasked with protecting our clean air, drinking water and open spaces,” Ross said in an email.

Wisconsin Law & Liberty has been a recipient of funding from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in May that hacked internal documents of the foundation obtained by the newspaper showed that the foundation was using its largess in states, including Wisconsin, to build networks to advance a conservative agenda.

Neither Curtis nor Williams responded to requests for interviews.

In an email, DNR spokesman Jim Dick said that Curtis’ professional background was “impressive,” noting his tenure with the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty

Lucas Vebber of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce also lauded the appointment.

“Jake Curtis is a skilled attorney who is more than capable of applying the law and enforcing Wisconsin’s rigorous environmental regulations, and we know he will do a great job serving the people of Wisconsin in this new role," Vebber said in an email.

Vebber is general counsel and director of environmental and energy policy for WMC, which is the largest business advocacy group in Wisconsin.

“We look forward to continuing to work with the professionals at DNR to ensure compliance with all regulations while growing our state’s economy,” Vebber said.

Curtis is also a former Ozaukee County supervisor and previously worked as policy director and legal counsel to Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville.)