Thursday, February 25, 2016

Nearly wiped out in '15, state agency lives to save public lands

Yes, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board fulfilled its oversight function a few days ago by refusing to allow the politically-managed Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to sell some parcels of environmentally-sensitive public acreage - - but let's remember those no-sale decisions almost didn't happen, because:

* The NRB's core role as citizen sounding board and policy/decision-maker was nearly wiped out when Gov. Walker proposed in his 2015'17 state budget that the NRB be diminished to advisory status, subservient to the DNR run by Cathy Stepp, Walker's hand-picked DNR Secretary with the requisite "chamber of commerce mentality."

If there hadn't been a broad legislative and grassroots uproar, it's likely that the controversial land sales - - including trout stream feeder ponds and, elsewhere, shoreline access sought by a major Walker donor - - would have been approved administratively at the powerful, top-down DNR envisioned by Walker and implemented by Stepp and her top managers.

Talk about putting "Deregulated" as the "D" at the DNR.

* The DNR has been radically transformed into a business-friendly agency, has intentionally weakened its public-interest enforcement role and is even preparing to let the regulated write their own rules.

Though the implications can seep and flow downhill and downriver to wells, lakes, beaches, trout streams and water taps.

One more thing:

These retreats from historic DNR expectations and a basic constitutionally-defined mission - - Wisconsin's Waters Belong to Everyone - - again underscore how greatly we miss the Public Intervenor's Office - - a small group of lawyers within state government created in 1967 by Republican Gov. Warren P. Knowles to protect common resources and promote fair play in Wisconsin environmental matters.

A great 2004 essay on the subject remains, lamentably, quite relevant today.

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