GOP legislator wants to dismantle Department of Natural Resources

Virginia Small, Contributing writer

State Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, is proposing to carve up Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, a move that sounds “interesting” to Gov. Scott Walker — but not to many hunters and anglers.

Announced Dec. 21, 2016, Jarchow’s plan would create two new agencies: a Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and a Department of Environmental Conservation. Other current DNR functions would be relocated to the Departments of Administrative Services, Agriculture and Tourism.

George Meyer, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation’s executive director, said the prominent statewide organization of 200 sports clubs strongly opposes the plan to spin off DNR functions into five disparate agencies.

Meyer, a former DNR secretary who served in the agency more than 30 years, told WiG Jarchow’s plan “came out of nowhere.” He said its proponents “seem to not understand how the DNR actually works and the effectiveness produced by its well-coordinated operations.” Outdoor sports enthusiasts depend on high-quality waters, forests and other resources and thus oppose any weakening of environmental protections, said Meyer.

Meyer added that replacing one agency with two would ultimately “cause significant cost increases” based on existing state government pay scales — even without adding staff. He anticipated that many functions would be duplicated and communication across agencies would become cumbersome or nonexistent. Meyer said higher costs would likely lead to more cuts in services and higher fees, including at state parks.

Additionally, Meyer said the Wisconsin Conservation Congress has historically opposed such proposals to split the DNR. The congress is the only statutory body in the state where citizens elect delegates to advise the Natural Resources Board and the Department of Natural Resources on how to responsibly manage Wisconsin’s natural resources for present and future generations.

Attempts to weaken environmental protection and defund state parks run counter to Wisconsin’s history, for at least a century, as a national trailblazer on conservation. Previous plans to revamp the DNR have been offered and rejected, most recently about a decade ago, according to Meyer.

WiG asked Jarchow about his goals for his DNR plan. He responded with this statement: “I agree with Gov. Walker that we should continue working and winning for Wisconsin. That means addressing difficult challenges like reigning (sic) in the DNR. I look forward to continuing this important discussion.”

Jarchow did not respond to questions about what, if any, support he has garnered for his plan.

Jarchow was among three legislators named to Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters’ “Dishonor Roll” for 2015–16 for “egregious actions,” along with Sens. Tom Tiffany and Frank Lasee. Jarchow told WPR Radio, “I see it as a badge of honor. I am proud to work hard to protect property rights on behalf of my constituents. Our pro-growth, common-sense reforms are working. If extremist, left-wing, radical, environmental groups don’t like it, too bad.”

Widespread concerns about plan

Concerns about the DNR proposal are coming from every corner of the state.

Former DNR Secretary Scott Hassett told the Wisconsin State Journal that, if the DNR is split up, Republicans would “have one agency they can feed and one they can starve. They like to feed fish and wildlife and starve environmental protection.”

Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, told WiG in an email that “further dismantling and diminishing the Department of Natural Resources is the wrong direction for Wisconsin. The state must restore our investment in our pristine lands and waters so that generations to come can enjoy the Wisconsin outdoors.” He noted that five former DNR secretaries were among many to “immediately speak out against unraveling an agency whose mission requires a comprehensive approach to best safeguard our future.”

Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, D-Milwaukee, thinks Jarchow’s plan would further jeopardize Wisconsin’s strong tradition as a leader in conservation and state parks. “The damage may not be felt immediately but, cut by cut, we are going down a very dark path in terms of our environmental security,” he told WiG.

Brostoff said Wisconsin’s tourism industry is “endangered when ecological oversight and enforcement is weakened.”

Green Bay resident Charles Frisk commented in a letter to the Capital Times: “Splitting of the DNR is an example of Walker’s ‘divide and conquer strategy,’ which he used effectively to pit union and nonunion workers against each other. It would finish off the DNR as a functioning agency.” Frisk noted that Walker’s administration has “already weakened the DNR by firing scientists, regulators and environmental educators, drastically cutting funding and naming a real estate executive (Cathy Stepp) as the DNR secretary.”

Parks threatened

Under Jarchow’s reorganization, Wisconsin’s 66 state parks — comprising almost 61,000 acres — would be managed by the Department of Tourism, which has no staff trained to manage parks and trails. The tourism department’s mission is “to market the state as the Midwest’s premier travel destination for fun” — a far cry from natural resource protection.

Beyond the state parks, the DNR’s Division of Forestry manages 471,000 acres in Wisconsin’s state forests. Under the Jarchow plan, the DNR’s forestry operations and northern state forests would be managed by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, while the Department of Tourism, again, would supervise southern state forests.

The fate of Wisconsin’s state parks already hangs in the balance after the Republican-led Legislature defunded them as of 2015. That has led to increases in fees for things like parks admission and camping.

Larson believes access to recreational opportunities within the state is at serious risk. “Wisconsin’s parks, forests and recreational areas are an important heritage meant for all to enjoy, not just those who can afford to pay more. Yet Walker’s DNR secretary is proposing more increases in fees at our state lands as well as selling the naming rights of different state park facilities to corporations,” Larson said.

Lewis Ledford, executive director of the National Association of State Parks Directors and a former parks director in North Carolina, said no state parks system has ever functioned long term on just a mix of user fees and corporate sponsorships without other public money. He was quoted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2015.

Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, which represents more than 38,000 members statewide, monitors all proposed policies relating to parks and public lands. WLCV’s spokesman Ryan Billingham said “thousands of state residents rely on parks as their only access” to outdoor recreation and respite. He thinks any new or proposed policies that “hamper access or reduce the quality of parks are completely out of touch with the needs of residents and what people value about the state’s rich heritage of conservation and public lands.”

DNR  spinoff plan in a nutshell

Wisconsin implemented its current integrated approach to natural-resource management in 1967, following intensive study by the Kellett Commission appointed by Republican Gov. Warren Knowles. That effort was chaired by William Kellett, retired president of Kimberly-Clark Paper Corporation in Neenah. Meyer said the commission had determined the Kellett Commission structure would be “more efficient and effective from a business standpoint.” He said “staff in virtually every state have been envious of how Wisconsin can easily bring together professionals within a single department” to address environmental issues.

That approach would be turned on its head by the Jarchow plan.

Existing Department of Natural Resources functions would be transferred to far-flung new and existing state agencies.

A Department of Fish and Wildlife would oversee wildlife and fisheries units, including fish and game enforcement. It also would manage state natural areas. The existing Natural Resources Board, composed of appointed citizens, would be renamed and have policy oversight over the agency.

A Department of Environmental Protection would manage environmental issues, such as drinking water, lake and river protections, air regulation and ground and watershed management. It would not have oversight by a citizens’ board.

State parks and trails and southern state forests would be transferred to the Department of Tourism.

The DNR’s forestry operations and the state’s northern forests would be managed by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

The Department of Administration would manage the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, which buys land for public use, as well as the legal services program now within the DNR.