Monday, January 3, 2011

Meet Wisconsin's Radical Environmentalists

The corporate water-carrier Scott Walker swaggers into office Monday on the strength of a 52% 'mandate' - - leaving behind nearly nine years of political and financial disinterest and disaster at the Milwaukee County Courthouse - - and arrives sworn in as Governor early, and silently, and with major state train construction and labor contract cancellations (victories, he says) under his belt already.

Let's note one telling episode during his at least five-year run for Governor that helped him to his 52% and hints at what's coming through at least 2014.

During the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Scott Walker ran an ad that claimed opponent Tom Barrett had a "radical environmental agenda."

What a whopper and deliberate political diversion that was - - but two weeks later, right on schedule and closer to the election, there was the "radical environmental" bogeyman in scary tones from the National Rifle Association, lauding Walker for his opposition to "radical environmental regulations enacted by the DNR."

There's the Right's pitch-perfect, echo chamber harmony, and fine foreshadowing, too, as Walker has put the home builders and others who have yearned for years to neuter the Department of Natural Resources in charge of the agency.

And also to weaken Wisconsin's conservation efforts, which is about as radical as you can get in the land of Gaylord Nelson, Aldo Leopold, and John Muir.

And here's the kicker:

It was Walker all along who had the radical environmental blueprint, the 'Cut It, Gut It, Pave it, Fill It' plan to help the home builders and road builders help themselves to the state's wetlands, forests, and from inside the DNR.

The DNR - - an - - the state agency - -  with a broad and historic mandate to operate in the public interest as its number-one priority.

How old is that legacy? And how deep?

Its role managing the state's water resources as a public trust dates to common law, then to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, and is embedded in the state constitution, in part as a check on elected officials who have power but are unfamiliar with the concepts of "public" and "trust."

At the bottom of this posting, I will copy out the entire DNR webpage text about the Public Trust Doctrine, just in case the Walker people begin their cutting and gutting by deleting or changing the wording in favor of, say, new DNR Secretary designee and former home builder Cathy Stepp's view of the DNR and the environment, as she wrote on a conservative blog:

"Those of you that haven't had the pleasure of peeking behind the scenes of our state agencies like DNR, Health and Family Services, etc...need to know how some of the most far-reaching policies come down on our heads.
The most crushing/controversial rules that businesses have to follow in our state are--most times--done through the "rule making process" of our state agencies. Without bogging everyone down with some really boring procedure talk, suffice it to say that many of these great ideas (sarcasm) come from deep inside the agencies and tend to be reflections of that agency's culture.

For example, people who go to work for the DNR's land, waste, and water bureaus tend to be anti-development, anti-transportation, and pro-garter snakes, karner blue butterflies, etc...This is in their nature; their make-up and DNA. So, since they're unelected bureaucrats who have only their cubicle walls to bounce ideas off of, they tend to come up with some pretty outrageous stuff that those of us in the real world have to contend with..."
Choosing special interest business representatives and DNR bashers who are driven by the profit motive and placing them in charge of this particular agency and its stewardship of the Public Trust Doctrine unmasks Walker as the real environmental radical.


From the DNR's Public Trust Doctrine webpage:


The Public Trust Doctrine

Wisconsin's Waters Belong to Everyone

Wisconsin lakes and rivers are public resources, owned in common by all Wisconsin citizens under the state's Public Trust Doctrine. Based on the state constitution, this doctrine has been further defined by case law and statute. It declares that all navigable waters are "common highways and forever free", and held in trust by the Department of Natural Resources.

Assures Public Rights in Waters

Wisconsin citizens have pursued legal and legislative action to clarify or change how this body of law is interpreted and implemented. 

Watch how their efforts have benefitted all Wisconsinites: "Champions of the Public Trust" [VIDEO length: 28:02]

As a result, the public interest, once primarily interpreted to protect public rights to transportation on navigable waters, has been broadened to include protected public rights to water quality and quantity, recreational activities, and scenic beauty.(1) 
All Wisconsin citizens have the right to boat, fish, hunt, ice skate, and swim on navigable waters, as well as enjoy the natural scenic beauty of navigable waters, and enjoy the quality and quantity of water that supports those uses.(2)

Wisconsin law recognizes that owners of lands bordering lakes and rivers - "riparian" owners - hold rights in the water next to their property. These riparian rights include the use of the shoreline, reasonable use of the water, and a right to access the water. However, the Wisconsin State Supreme Court has ruled that when conflicts occur between the rights of riparian owners and public rights, the public's rights are primary and the riparian owner's secondary.(1)

What are Wisconsin's stream and lake access laws?

Wisconsin's Public Trust Doctrine requires the state to intervene to protect public rights in the commercial or recreational use of navigable waters. The DNR, as the state agent charged with this responsibility, can do so through permitting requirements for water projects, through court action to stop nuisances in navigable waters, and through statutes authorizing local zoning ordinances that limit development along navigable waterways.

The court has ruled that DNR staff, when they review projects that could impact Wisconsin lakes and rivers, must consider the cumulative impacts of individual projects in their decisions.

"A little fill here and there may seem to be nothing to become excited about. But one fill, though comparatively inconsequential, may lead to another, and another, and before long a great body may be eaten away until it may no longer exist. Our navigable waters are a precious natural heritage, once gone, they disappear forever," wrote the Wisconsin State Supreme Court justices in their opinion resolving Hixon v. PSC.(2)

(1) Quick, John. 1994. The Public Trust Doctrine in Wisconsin. Wisconsin Environmental Law Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1.
(2) "Champions of the Public Trust, A History of Water Use in Wisconsin" study guide. 1995. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Bureau of Water Regulation and Zoning.
For more information, contact:
Dale Simon, Waterway Protection Section
Bureau of Watershed Management
(608) 267-9868


Steve Branca said...

The Wisconsin we knew and loved is no more. Muir, Nelson, Leopold are of another day and no tangible vestiges remain. Walker has finished hammering a thousand nails in the coffin. We can't keep thinking of Wisconsin in those terms or we won't be able to take it from where it is today and make it better. Where or who are the new Leopolds or Nelsons? That's the question. The answer is ... us?

Anonymous said...

Little Rock lake in Vilas county was a nice little lake that I used to visit. In the 1980’s the DNR along with the University of Wisconsin, decided to do a little experiment; they closed the entire lake off to public access and dumped it full of acid just to see what would happen. This project was only supposed to last a few years and then the lake would be restored. The last time I drove by a couple of years ago, the Lake still was fenced off. The open access and clean water stuff is easily ignored when someone needs a good research project.

I am a strong proponent of open access to waters and besides the terms in the Wisconsin Constitution referring to navigatable waters being open and free, it also includes the carrying places in between. Since the water ways were the highways of commerce, it made no sense to have the waterways open but you could not get to the water. To me, this should ensure that there is public access to all the navigatable waters in the State which, of course, there is not. Expanding their authority to include managing the scenery along navigatable waters seems a bit over reaching when one of the most basic points of the constitution have not yet been met.

Anonymous said...

From the DNR website: “Public use restrictions may apply due to public safety, or to protect endangered or threatened species or unique natural features. Lands may be temporarily closed due to specific management activities.” Although the DNR champions open access (and they should) they reserve the authority to deny it to others. To me, this smacks of elitists who want a exclusive little playground for themselves paid for by public funds.

I used to be a DNR employee and witnessed myself, many times, DNR employees who felt they had special privileges and access to public lands (including access for trapping for personal gain). Yes, the DNR is made up of people and people can have selfish motives; that is why no government agency can be given too much authority over the actions of others.

One of Scott Walker’s stated goals was to allow more open access on public lands. The DNR will claim harm to the environment. I am with Walker on this one.