Monday, November 26, 2018

6 experts explain how WI can have the better DNR it needs

In 2016, I'd asked current and former Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources staffers how they thought things were going, and their responses are in this updated post downloaded thousands of times.

Then in 2017, I asked a bigger group of current and former Wisconsin DNR employees, along with experts often in touch with the agency, for their observations, and posted them over two days, here - - again to strong readership.

And I recently put up a 21-part series on what's happened to the Wisconsin environment since Walker installed his "chamber of commerce mentality" atop the DNR, so I've certainly had my say. And I appreciate the tens of thousands of  times those installments were read.

So, as a new era dawns 

Recent sunrise over Lake Michigan from Milwaukee's lakefront
on the Wisconsin political and natural environment, I thought I'd ask some of the experts again because Governor-elect Tony Evers' swearing-in as Walker's replacement is just weeks away.

I asked these sources separately. None have seen what any of the others have written. (And I may extend this post, or add another take, so stay tuned.)

Here's what came back from several individuals:
* From a current, long-term DNR staffer:

Top Ten Pieces of Advice for Gov. Elect Tony Evers on the DNR - - by an Anonymous Staffer
10. Clean house. To restore trust both inside and outside the department, don’t bring back appointees from the Doyle or Walker administrations. Having a board-appointed Secretary should be a goal. 
9. Put climate change back into the decision-making process for DNR regulations. Denying climate change will not make it go away.
8. Address Chronic Wasting Disease. Hunters need to know deer meat is safe to eat and worth the cost of a license and hunting trip. 
7. Put state money into the park system. We have beautiful parks. They should be fun, safe, and affordable for everyone. Wisconsin’s state parks were never intended to be self-funding, so stop pretending they can be.
6. Recognize there are conflicts between the different programs and deal with them. Protecting wildlife means protecting their habitat. Clean water means discharge rules have to be enforced. 
5. Bring back testimony by DNR staff on proposed legislation. The people who do the work know more about the programs they work in, the people affected by regulation, and the resources they manage than some bought and paid for legislator, lobbyist, or a nonprofit. 
4. Hire people. Since Walker took office, DNR is down over 400 people but the amount of work is the same. Some of it isn’t getting done. Hire professionals and non-professionals with energy and ideas.  Recruiting minorities should be a priority. Pay people well. 
3. Give staff the equipment they need to do their jobs. Pay for professional licenses, training, and continuing education. Invest in staff and encourage them to keep learning. 
2. Put money back into research and data collection for better resource management and rule writing. Don't write rules that look good but cost industries money while doing nothing for the environment.
1. Bring back Education and Information professionals and Outreach programs. DNR needs to go back to talking face-to-face with people about protecting and enhancing our environment. Likewise, the people of Wisconsin need opportunities to talk to us about the issues that are important to them. 

* From George Meyer, Executive Director, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and former DNR Secretary:

1.      Evers will appoint individuals to the agency that have professional scientific and natural resource management background. That automatically changes the perspective in decision-making. Their first analysis will be impact on the resource. The positions are Sec., Dep. Sec., and Assist. Dep Sec.,  five Division Administrator positions, Chief Legal Counsel, Chief Public Information Officer and Chief Legislative Liaison. 

2.      There will be a focus on climate change including populating the DNR’s website--as background there was significant climate change information on the DNR website when I was Secretary 20 years ago.

3.      There will be an increase in enforcement of environmental and conservation laws--both of which diminished greatly under Walker and Schimel.

4.      There will be added scientists and scientific decision-making including the possible restoration of the Science Bureau.

5.      There will be legal and sound decisions made on wetland and navigable water decisions rather than the decisions made on Meteor Timber and the Kohler golf course.

6.       Greater emphasis placed on containing chronic wasting disease in the state.

7.      Added emphasis on groundwater quality protection. DNR was forced into enacting tougher manure and septage land application standard for the sensitive Karst formations in Kewaunee, Brown and Door County but were blocked by the Governor for tougher standards in other sensitive areas such as the sandy soils of Central and Southwestern Wisconsin which have high degrees of nitrate pollution.

8.      There can be a rebuilding of the DNR resource protection culture that there used to be. DNR has very good front-line employees. 

9.      DNR will once again show up and present objective analysis of legislative bills…this is really important.

10.   Having a Governor Evers will stop bad conservation and environmental bills from being passed and in many cases from being introduced. 
* From a former long-term DNR staffer:
Review DNR staff training plans to ensure that all staff have had and will have basic level of training in land and water law as well as the mechanics of their specific assignments.

Resume preparing bill analysis and fiscal notes (regardless of whether DNR takes a position, the factual information should be provided).

Assign Deputies or Exec Assistants from DNR and Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection specific mutual objectives to coordinate the agencies' work to reduce agricultural sources of phosphorus, nitrogen and bacteria to surface and groundwater.

All top administrators meet regularly with conservation and environmental groups. 

Resume doing environmental reviews of high cap well applications (in conjunction with a legal review by the new AG's office).

Move as quickly as possible to develop groundwater standards (NR140 and ss. 160) for new list of chemicals (DNR and DATCP staff developed a proposed list of detected compounds back in 2014 or so).

Restore river group technical assistance and development grants

Revisit decision to sell acres of state lands...if some of the lands truly don't fit DNR projects or cant be effectively manage, then run a process similar to feds disposal of lands that retains the original conservation purpose (other agencies, local governments).

* From Gordon Stevenson, former Chief of Runoff Management, DNR

Fewer and fewer people remember that in 1995, Governor Thompson proposed and successfully passed legislation that took governance of DNR away from Wisconsin citizens. Even fewer people remember that the same legislation also took away citizen governance from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). 

It is vital to recognize that agriculture is responsible for as much as 90% of both groundwater pollution and surface water pollution in Wisconsin.  We need only look at the Dead Zone in Green Bay, the undrinkable groundwater of the Central Sands, or the pathogens in the drinking water supplies of Kewaunee County to know that for DNR to move forward, DATCP must as well.

Specifically, I suggest restoration of pre-1995 citizen governance to both agencies.  That includes: 1) Secretaries are appointed by citizen boards not the Governor, 2) Secretaries are selected in accordance with professional qualifications, not political connections, and 3) The voices of Wisconsin citizens are meaningfully considered in regulatory and policy decisions. 

Notably, Governor Doyle vetoed legislation that could have done that.

I also suggest that both agencies recommit to compliance with open meetings laws and open records laws. 

And perhaps most vital, I hope the incoming administration will restore morale of staffs of both agencies.

* From former DNR communications staffer Anne Urbanski:
Retired DNR air quality communicator Anne Urbanski sees Evers' election as a sign that the majority of Wisconsin voters want corporate interests and Republican donors to have less sway over DNR's decisions.

"I'm hopeful that Governor Evers will appoint someone with strong experience in environmental issues and natural resource management to be DNR secretary," said Urbanski, who now lives in Santa Fe, NM.  

"Wisconsin needs to return to the science-based decision-making that made WDNR a leader among state environmental agencies for so many years. I also hope the research sections of DNR can be built up again and that the state will renew the climate change activities that the Walker administration dropped.

"Wisconsin also needs the DNR to hire communicators to the replace the ones who, like me, were purged in June 2015."

* From a former, long-term DNR staffer:

I’ve either worked with or inside of DNR the better part of my career.  It is a critical leader in protecting and managing our natural heritage. Even without Act 10 it was time for the cohort that came in during the 80’s to retire. Just like the cohort before them, they brought in current science.  At the time, that was the beginning of conservation biology and an ecological lens for setting goals for the departments overall future goals.

There were some of the best, and I mean that, biologists in the world holding regular jobs in the DNR.  They interpreted the public’s great reverence for our intact natural communities as well as our leading edge science in restoring landscape-scale destruction of the follies of clear-cutting the North woods. 

In part, Wisconsin’s prowess grew out of an emerging science and a terrible environmental problem. Rivers were running with mud after forests were clear cut.  The Peshtigo fire was fueled by the unsaleable slash from the great cutover. 

The real value of the DNR has been in being the big ship that pulled academia, industry and the public’s love of special places forward together. 

Many complained about the slow pace and industry began the narrative of “red tape” interfering with commerce.  One woman’s red tape is another woman’s sober application of the power of the state and the emerging science to apply as trustees for future generations.

The most important act of Tony Evers is to appoint a nationally-respected scientist as the DNR secretary and to let him or her begin the necessary process of setting a future course with skilled staff and insulation from the raw political influence of the Doyle and Walker administrations. 

Walker’s administration was actively anti-science in handing out favors to special interests and Doyle began the long downhill slide by appointing secretaries without the skills or autonomy to take the great department forward.

Even under an “independent secretary” endangered resources staff were at best bastard children although if they kept their heads down they were free to work with the academic community to continue the near-century of field biology to identify and scientifically manage our great natural heritage. 

From Muir on, and even before in the early missionaries we’ve enjoyed complete field biology to identify pre-Colonial or European settlement conditions. In addition to the wealth of field notes, our great DNR scientists combed every source available to them to understand the unique intersection of many ecotones in Wisconsin.

I remember a trip to D.C. with some of the biologists from the Science Services division Stepp aborted.  We walked through the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art to look at landscape paintings from pre-settlement to better understand our Wisconsin landscape prior to European extraction. 

Working for the Nature Conservancy I was able to organize and implement the first statewide natural area priority land acquisition plan with great scientists from academia, government and citizen scientists. There was a hesitancy to identify the must-protect places to achieve reference sites of the vast array of natural communities in the rich and varied ecotones of Wisconsin. Secrecy and stealth acquisition had been the mode to secure these special places in times where utility of landscapes was paramount.

The information we developed was launched forward with the advent of GIS to better document and model the relative importance of specific sites.

The WI Initiative on Climate Change. (WICCI), further utilized the near-century of data to ensure there were reference sites across all ecological boundaries to document the impacts of a changing climate and inform the dedication of resources and practices of managing our natural heritage.

All of that is what we lose if we allow political payback to drive appointments to positions of managerial influence in the DNR. We aren’t so far gone that we can’t connect the threads of the past with the new generation of biologists to come in to the department.

I try hard to understand young people and their values to be sure they know their importance to public service moving forward. Just as bureaucracy at its best is the marriage of theory and practice, public agency management and protection is applied science informed by the best available science.  

When folks join the DNR they tend to stay a long time. 

There just aren’t many opportunities for career-long opportunities for applied science across landscapes. Even if a crappy DNR hires good people, they will be corrupted or dis-empowered from channeling their passion and skills in service to our natural heritage and the rights of future generations.

It’s beyond sin to squander freshwater in a world where tens of thousands of people die from lack of potable water. We have the data, the scientific foundation and the public will to protect our precious freshwater if we want to.  

Evers must appoint a highly skilled scientist to run the DNR and allow him or her to appoint the best possible people to administer the divisions, after restoring some organizational amputations carried out by Walker’s team, to give us a chance to take Wisconsin forward in a challenging and changing world.

This is a key moment. Myself, I am strongly supporting Mark Borchardt as the next secretary of the DNR. He is an internationally-acclaimed microbiologist with a career of studying pathogens in public and private water supplies. 

It would be a sign of trust to the whole of Wisconsin, hopefully allowing the artificial rural/urban divide, at least around drinking water, to be put to rest.

All families around the state want to have safe drinking water. I’ve worked statewide for 30 years and people who used to be antagonistic or “afraid” of the DNR want them to asseet their resources and authority to ensure the protection of our ample water resources for future generations.  

I am aware I haven’t given you a precise quote, but as I hope you see I am passionate about not breaking the link in the chain of conservation biology that has been stressed by special interests since the independent secretary was abolished.


Paul said...

What a great posting from good people, and what a relief that the anti-science, anti-environmental protection days are waning. Before Doyle/Walker, the DNR regularly got bashed from the backward element that elected Walker, but people who knew better realized that Wisconsin's DNR was among the best in the nation. There's every reason to think that that will be restored because, as the posting shows, the knowledge and good will still resides here.

Anonymous said...

I would just be happy if the new Secretary didn't reorganize us again.

reschallert said...

All good thoughts, BUT will the Republican "bully boys" in the Legislature (Fitzgerald and Vos) go along with such changes? And agree to provide the funds to do what needs to be done?? The WMC and its' allies wield some mighty Big Sticks in terms of controlling government agencies in Wisconsin

Anonymous said...

The issue is that the DNR had become a human resources management agency and about control of employees....Almost no worker protections....I saw so many employees in my program getting "smeared" and "gas lighted" with work rules and employee evaluations and meetings with human resources. Others getting promoted to management because they would do whatever they were told and no problem making things up.

Anonymous said...

A friend recently laughed at salaries for engineers and wondered how DNR hires anyone.

anonymous said...

I'm a former DNR Science Services Bureau employee and wholly confirm the advice and assessments published in this post.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anon 6:47 about human resources and the firings and promotions. Terrible people running the agency. Get rid of all of them down to and including Bureau Directors.