Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Inside the WI DNR: poor morale, fear, despair over lost mission

[Updated several times from 6/2/16; see 6/21 update, below:] 

After two recent, high-ranking staff departures - - and a host of legal, program and policy changes in state government which have put Wisconsin air, water and land at risk since Gov. Walker's inauguration in January, 2011 - - I thought it was time to get a closer look inside the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

[6/10/16 update, 2:12 p.m.] The DNR has quietly adopted the advisory opinion of Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel - - one lawyer's view that is not state law approved by the Legislature - - that Wisconsin groundwater is not afforded protection or regulation long-guaranteed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the Wisconsin Constitution. 

[6/16/16 update] Ordered up by Big Ag, mega-dairies and other special interests - - in writing:

The hand-delivered memo, its bold and bold-faced language. and the weighty array of powerful logos at the top tell the story:

An urgent communication to all Wisconsin legislators 
We are at a crossroads. It is imperative that the legislature assert its authority and bring certainty and sanity to the regulation of new and existing high capacity wells in Wisconsin. 
However, we cannot accept any legislation that would create new, stifling regulations or establish regulatory uncertainty as to how DNR and the state will approach new well applications moving forward. 
Another win for polluters at the expense of the people who own all the water of the state, and solid evidence that the DNR is little more than a subsidiary of corporate Wisconsin where the GOP runs and coordinates all theree branches of the government.

My findings, below:

The DNR, once a nationally-regarded science-based resource protection agency, has been disregarded, defunded and degraded by management "deliberately and proudly uninformed," according to one first-hand observer among several whom I surveyed over the course of ten days.

Wisconsin's far-right Governor Scott Walker set the DNR's downfall in motion when he appointed at the beginning of his tenure Racine developer and unabashed DNR-trasher Cathy Stepp - -  

Wisconsin DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp proudly shows off her first deer, taken opening weekend last year. In the upcoming TV Special "Deer Hunt Wisconsin 2012, Stepp urges male hunters to take more girls and women hunting. "The secret's out," she says. "Hunting is a lot of fun, so don't keep it to yourselves."  photo courtesy of Wisconsin DNR
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin DNR 
- - read her anti-DNR-staff-and-program rant while a revealing Stepp video has been taken off-line - - to oversee the DNR as Secretary with what Walker called "a chamber of commerce mentality."

Walker then added other top managers with work at leading builders, transportation and commerce trade associations on their resumes to oversee crucial air, water and other environmental policy development, implementation and decision-making.
While Stepp, at times, has promoted in-house activities or made remarks which one first-hand observer has called "not very professional. I think she is deliberately and proudly uninformed."

A summary post about some of this is here.

Walker has reduced DNR budgets, pared its long-standing, bi-partisan land acquisition program, slashed science and other staffs, enabled reduced pollution inspections and enforcement actions  - - read this 2012 enforcement summation and a 2016 followup - - and wants to turn over agency permit drafting to 'regulated' applicants already enjoying eased permit reviews. 

Updated, 6/5: As if on cue, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, citing a non-partisan state watchdog agency report, noted that the DNR has been routinely ignoring its own procedures and declining to charge large numbers of industrial and municipal polluters, for years:

Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources isn't following its own policies for policing pollution from large livestock farms and wastewater treatment plants, a state audit says.  
The Legislative Audit Bureau report found the DNR failed to send violation notices in 94% of the nearly 560 instances its policies said it should have over the past decade. The report found that permits have been extended without review for years due to a backlog and that staff members don't have time to thoroughly monitor concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
And Walker has added special-interest friendly policies, rules and legislation to the DNR's purview, is using the agency to fight federal clean air standards, allowed the agency to systematically ignore federal clean water law enforcement and has opened the door to  sand and open-pit iron mining, wetland filling and shoreline development, regardless of local residents and governments' input or desires.

Added to this toxic brew which puts special interests above the public's needs: 

*  A solidly pro-Walker, GOP gerrymandered state legislature;

*  A 5-2 majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court elected with the help of large campaign donations from some of the same trade associations supplying the DNR with senior administrators and corporate policy agendas;

*  An Attorney General also captured by special interests, especially those who would privatize the public's water while the current DNR is all-too-happy to look the other way.

* [6/19/16 update]: And the agency has just announced the sale of 128 parcels of publicly-owned land, many of which are labeled designated wildlife, water management of gifted property. Political and insider opportunities abound.

So after those two high-profile, senior DNR staff departures, and other policy decisions which put the public interest at the back of the line, I decided to survey people with direct knowledge of the DNR. I asked them to comment on agency issues, including 
morale, impact of budget cuts, reorganizations, and senior staff leadership/competence.

Here is some of the feedback:


Updated, 6/21/16:

With his permission, I am adding comments to this post from Gordon Stevenson, an engineer and former senior DNR manager, who now serves Midwest Environmental Advocates as board secretary and spoke at a a May MEA water program in Milwaukee. This is from his MEA bio:

Gordon is a 26 year veteran of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. His last assignment was serving as the Chief of Runoff Management until his retirement in January of 2011. His professional expertise includes watershed-based water resource protection and control of diffuse water pollution sources. Gordon had been instrumental in development of policies and administrative codes for the State of Wisconsin involving both agricultural and urban nonpoint source water pollution. In particular, Gordon has been an architect of Wisconsin’s environmental programs that apply to Wisconsin’s extensive livestock industry. He wrote and issued the first permits for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations in Wisconsin, developed technical guidance for abatement of agricultural pollutants in both surface water and groundwater and was the voice of the Department of Natural Resources to Wisconsin’s livestock producer community.
 At the MEA water program, Stevenson said, in part:
For the majority of my career, water policy decisions were based on the strong bond between law and science, the people in charge of making those decisions had conservation and environmental protection credentials, and my colleagues and I shared the belief that Wisconsin's true and sustaining wealth is its clean water.
Much of that is now changed at DNR. Wisconsin DNR's water quality permit program has been found seriously deficient by the US Environmental Protection Agency. DNR is failing to protect downstream water from upstream pollution sources, they are allowing already impaired water bodies to get worse and they are suppressing the public's ability to challenge water quality permit decisions.
Wisconsin DNR's authority to protect Wisconsin's water resources is delegated from EPA. Under the delegation agreement, DNR is obligated to administer the federal Clean Water Act. DNR is not doing so. On behalf of 16 Wisconsin citizens, Midwest Environmental Advocates has filed a Citizens Petition for Corrective Action with the US Environmental Protection agency to correct these deficiencies. The petition seeks to restore the credible water quality protection program that we once had in this state.
We're arriving at an important crossroads in Wisconsin. We have our own version of Flint, Michigan in Kewaunee County where citizens cannot drink the water and we have our own version of the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone. A dead zone now also exists in Green Bay that runs from the City of Green Bay all the way up to Marinette.
While I am alarmed, I am also encouraged . We are pleased to report that more than 70 people like me, DNR retirees, along with other credible scientist and partners have signed on to support the Petition for Corrective Action along with our original 16 Wisconsin citizen clients. And the number of people supporting the petition is growing daily.
But in a larger sense. I am even more encouraged that so many Wisconsin citizens believe like I do: that water policy decisions should be based on the strong bond between law and science, that the people in charge of making water quality decisions should have the credentials to do so, and that Wisconsin's true and sustaining wealth is its clean water."
In an email, Stevenson also said:
In addition, DNR management has made it clear to staff that environmental advocacy is no longer the core mission of DNR and staff are disallowed from doing so.  What was once a guardian of Wisconsin’s natural heritage is now reduced to a rubber-stamping vendor of licenses and permits without oversight.

*  A lobbyist noted DNR policy and procedure changes that have tilted agency activity and decisions towards regulated businesses:

No legislative analysis of bills by Department staff. No testimony on bills unless asked by a legislator... DNR used to have written instructions on providing testimony. That no longer exists. 
Decisions on permits, policies, responses to FOI's [freedom of information requests] are all made by Division Administrators (political appointees) 
Routine for permit applicants to meet with senior staff (Secretary's Office) with no front line staff working on permits attending - or even notified of these meetings. 
General - low morale - much of it from fear. Employees have no idea what realignment will look like and many long term employees are afraid they will be out of a job. There is no info on the realignment which is supposed to happen by July 1.
*  A former longtime staffer said:
Employee morale is far lower than it ever has been. Most experienced  employees leave as soon as they can. There is often a fear to make unpopular decisions which often are part of the job.
* Another former staffer said:
...morale among the long-time staff is not good. Many are old enough to retire... but feel they can't. I've also heard that senior management (division admins and up) "listen" to advice of technical staff but often don't follow it.
*  A second lobbyist said:
...for retired DNR workers...there's deep dismay about the selling off of the agency, the trashing of its mission, the disrespect for agency workers (and all public employees, for that matter, by the Walker regime). 
The most deeply dismaying, for former DNR types, is how acquiescent and compliant newer DNR workers are to this philosophy of government -- how they really know nothing else and they think this is normal. Retirees understand younger DNR workers have families to support and careers to build, but it pains them to see them robbed of their autonomy and professionalism -- and that newer workers may not even fully understand the robbery.  
*  A third former staffer said: 
The most alarming issue to me is the great waste of decades of sound science, compiled overtime in on-going studies and data collection. WI had more information about our natural landscape than most states. Abolishing science services put an end to decades long studies vital to maintaining and recovering rare and endangered plants and animals as well as understanding natural communities as information on resilience for climate change. 
* A current employe on personal time echoed many of the lobbyists and former staffers'  observations:
Under Walker and Stepp, science is not a priority. Scientific knowledge is ever-changing but in Wisconsin our staff are being left behind. We no longer have a statistician to help interpret data, a library to provide journals or books, or researchers that monitor fish counts, wildlife health, air quality, water quality and etc….employee scientific knowledge and data specific to WI is stagnant...we cannot do the best job possible for our state. 
The DNR is currently run by people who understand public relations spin but not the complexity of the natural resources they are responsible for...Communications staff, generally not trained specifically in resource communication, answer questions with talking points..usually developed by upper management - political appointees - and legal staff. The information provided is biased and superficial.
Act 10 and the pay cuts related to that have been hard on a lot of staff...we can no longer hire and/or keep the best and brightest and that is sad. Especially looking back at some of the really ground-breaking research and resulting policy work done here 20-30 years ago. We now do the minimum to protect resources...
We have 2,500 full time staff (down from 3,100) and about 1,500 Limited Term Employees. That is an extremely high number of temporary employees who can and have been fired without any notice. After Civil Service "reforms" which go into effect in July, we will all be subject to that uncertainty. Under these circumstances, collective institutional memory can be lost very quickly...Reinventing the wheel is wasteful... 
Also happening in July is our "Alignment," the new term for reorganization. Anyone not performing a "core function" will be moved to a new job [but] there has been no information provided to staff on just what the core functions are….
I do believe that all the natural resources of Wisconsin belong to the people of Wisconsin...I don't understand why people who live in one of the most beautiful and environmentally diverse places in the world voted for environmental degradation. 


Anonymous said...

Mission Accomplished! What else would you expect when your state, with the help of a compliant and enabling media landscape, turns all function of government to oil interests like Koch Industries?

Anonymous said...

I am absolutely inpressed and amazed. As current 28 yr. employee I confirm your report is completely accurate. I am done shortly. The DNR is a sad sad group of people other than upper level despots and the new morons.

Everything is indeed decided by upper management, everything.

Anonymous said...

I spent over 25 years with DNR and was proud of the work done by a professional dedicated staff. In the 2 1/2 years since I retired I have been shocked at the rapid decline of this once proud agency, orchestrated by an inept leadership with absolutely no qualifications nor the inclination to be a steward of our precious natural resources. The Chamber Of Commerce mentality of Cathy Stepp and her henchmen have single handedly turned a one of the best in the nation natural resource agency to a rubber stamp for the right wing ideology of Scott Walker and his anti government government. It makes me sad for the dedicated resource professionals trapped in this dysfunctional she'll of it's former glory. Our natural resources are at risk of decline like I have not seen In my lifetime.

Anonymous said...

I spoke with a DNR employee just the other day and everything you outlined here was confirmed by that employee. People question them when they find out the DNR no longer performs the service they are accustomed to having done. They direct people to contact the governor's office and people just shake their heads. Morale has never been so low and relative to the upcoming re-organization there has been no input from line staff nor information from those at the top. They are assuming it will be another bomb dropping by Walker and Stepp!!!

Anonymous said...

Maybe becoming conscious of the loss of one of the densest and healthiest wild deer populations in the world (to "mad deer" disease, from the feed as Stauber warned us)
and the sacred gift of all our once healthy Water and the protection forests provided before the ash borer and timber sales will enlighten all of us to the real value of
this place. Ban CAFO's now. I vote no confidence in this administration, DATCP, DNR.
Good post.

Anonymous said...

So the tree huggers are pissed off. God told Scott Walker to put sh!t in our water and, by God, he is doing it. It is so Unholy to challenge The Lord's infinite wisdom.

And how do I know Scott Walker has a direct line to God? He told me so when The Almighty commanded he run for President.

Anonymous said...

Walker has destroyed education, roads and the environment within Wisconsin.....all things that once made Wisconsin great! His legacy will be that of the "GREAT DESTROYER!"

Anonymous said...

All so very true but I would like to point out that this degradation, undermining, politicizing and businesses first attitude was also underway when George was there. That's a fact I and many others saw up close and personal particularly with respect to toxic waste site investigation/management. Ignoring the technical staff and the departments own regulations was something to behold. Even to the point of ostracizing technical staff who wouldn't sell-out and sing the desired song. With my own eyes, I saw how the investigation could get "buried" and later on the technical staff who tried to do the right thing got stabbed in the back.

Anonymous said...

The same could be said of almost any state agency IMO. It's an unbelievably depressing environment to work in.

Commander Codpiece said...

Mission Accomplished!

Jake formerly of the LP said...

He's doing what he's paid to do, so the Dem guv that takes over after 2018 can't fix it. See Kansass and Louisiana for where we are headed

Anonymous said...

Interesting story from Michigan about the Waukesha water diversion.


Has anyone thought to notify Gov Snyder that this will be lead free water Waukesha will be taking? Snyder would probably never vote for lead free water.

Anonymous said...

Walker doesn't suck. He blows.

Anonymous said...

The statement about the people of WI owning the resources. When I think about how poorly they are managing the deer herd, our deer herd, it makes me really angry. How many of us are afraid to eat the deer we hunted because of CWD? How is that promoting the "tradition of the deer hunt?" The people currently in charge of the DNR are not uninformed, they are dangerous.

Anonymous said...

Polish a turd and you get a Walker. Ask his DNR cronies if you can fill our waterways with polished-Walker turds, and they will say YES!

Anonymous said...


Peter Felknor said...

We can undo all of the irresponsible legislation forced on us by Walker and his minions by passing an "Act 9" the minute we get a responsible governor in office.

But undoing the harm this criminal has done to our environment, and to our great university, will take decades.

Anonymous said...

The rubes in northern Wisconsin and WOW counties want manure lagoons integrated in their drinking water. As Marie-Antoinette (bride of France’s King Louis XVI) said, "Let them eat feces".

Anonymous said...


Scott Walker's BFF is tellin' whoppers again as noooooze. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's web proclaims the following dishonest headline to the world:

Student-run businesses address manufacturing skills gap

This is a lie on so many levels -- but not even MJS can catapult this one accurately. THE PICTURE THEY USE SHOWS CHILDREN IN A SHOP ENVIRONMENT WITHOUT SAFETY GLASSES ON!

So it appears the only real skill gap is with the folk's that published this story.

Of course, the article does not in any way quantify a skills gap or even build a rational case that one exists and that schools are to blame. This is typical pro-Walker propaganda.

The "skill gaps" meme was used back in 2011 and was mostly pulled-off the table because it is not valid. Private industry is hiding being propaganda like this to squeeze subsidies from taxpayers (while they advocate austerity for YOU!).

Since when is it newsworthy when for-profit companies decide they can snooker the taxpayers to subsidize their labor and training costs? The "skills gap" lie is being resurrected fromt he grave by MJS, so expect the rest of Wisconsin's media echo chamber to catapult the disinformation across The Badger State!

NOTE: I won't provide link as I refuse to be responsible for sending ad-generating traffic to Scott Walker's BFF. Google the headline or just go to their website. The headline screams the shameless like exactly as I have provided above.

Anonymous said...

That picture of Stepp with the baby deer. Ugh.

intelife said...

Not only are they routinely no longer issuing violation notices, for years there has been absolutely no monitoring of any so called game farms or so called penning operations, where animals are routinely used as live bait for hound training. For years now the only requirement for pen owners has been an annual SELF Evaluation for the DNR.What a joke!!! Pity the bait animals..coyotes, raccoons, young bears, foxes and bobcats who become imprisoned in those hell holes till dying from mistreatment,exhaustion,or caught and torn apart by those hungry frantic hounds.

That is a whole nother untold story

Anonymous said...

"I wish we all were Public Intervenors"

"That is what we really ought to be"

"Where are the Badger Public

"Come out of hiding, hero's you & me!"

Anonymous said...

"Stepp recalled her days as a McDonald’s restaurant manager as she talked about how state employment rules have hobbled the DNR."

I would love to know what her McDonald's employees thought of her as a manager.