Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Muzzling of the DNR

Gagged by the Walker administration, its staff no longer provide any information.

By - Mar 16th, 2017 02:57 pm
Cathy Stepp. Photo from the State of Wisconsin.

Cathy Stepp. Photo from the State of Wisconsin.

George Meyer worked for 32 years with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, including as DNR Secretary from 1993 to 2001, as appointee of Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. But he has never anything like the silence that’s descended on this state agency.

“When it comes to any major decisions on natural resources in the state, the DNR is AWOL — absent without leave,” says Meyer, who nowadays serves as executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

The DNR has been muzzled, says Meyer and other observers, and state legislators can no longer rely on it to provide technical information needed to make critical policy decisions on natural resources. That is not by accident, Meyer, says, but the result of directions given by the administration of Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

“It’s become a very anti-science agency,” Meyer charges.

Yet the truth about the DNR’s transformation hasn’t quite sunk in.

Media coverage of the DNR — and a Legislative Audit Bureau report — have certainly raised questions about what is going on at the DNR.

A Wisconsin State Journal story on the audit bureau report noted that the state’s “water quality regulators failed to follow their own policies on enforcement against polluters more than 94 percent of the time over the last decade…notices of violations were issued to polluters in just 33 of 558 instances.”

A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation found that from 2011 to 2014, the DNR accepted an average of 256 cases of environmental violations annually, or “45% fewer than under Doyle’s final term of 467 cases a year” and “Issued an average of 281 notices of violations each year,” compared to 488 a year in Doyle’s second term. The Walker era looked even weaker when compared to the number of cases during Doyle’s first term.

The Journal Sentinel has also reported on the huge increase in “high-capacity” wells which can pump more than 100,000 gallons of groundwater a day, and how these wells are depleting Wisconsin rivers, streams and lakes.

Concerns are growing, the newspaper recently reported, “over algae-filled lakes, polluted wells, invasive species, and streams and lakes that no longer comply with state standards.”

And the State Journal reported that “fines paid by Wisconsin polluters fell to a 30-year low in 2015… The fines fell to $306,834 in 2015” while the average for the last 10 years “was about seven times that amount — $2.2 million.” The 2015 numbers “showed sharp drops in fines for air pollution, spills of farm animal waste, improper discharges of sewage, storm water and toxic chemicals.”

Yet the explanation for this dramatic reduction in enforcement has often put the emphasis on cuts in staff and a lack of resources. “Heavy workloads and high turnover of DNR employees may have contributed to inaction,” the audit bureau suggested.

“There are literally not enough people to actually enforce the laws on pollution and contamination–the Governor and DNR Secretary have made sure of it,” Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) has charged.

Yes, the DNR’s staff is down, Meyer says. He estimates the staff has been cut by 20 percent over the last 20 years, “half of that under Walker.” The staff cuts have been particularly hard on scientific and educational staff, he says.

But the far bigger problem, he says, is the redefinition of the department’s mission. DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, he notes, has given speeches to business group saying her job is “to promote industry and create jobs.”

Along with that has come a complete abdication of DNR’s role as the state’s technical advisor on natural resource issues. Meyer points to a recent bill on Chronic Wasting Disease which he believes would weaken regulations.

“This is the most serious threat to the state deer herd, the most revered wildlife species in this state,” Meyer emphasizes. And no one from DNR was there at the legislative hearing.

So Meyer contacted DNR deputy secretary Kurt Thiede, who responded via email as follows: “As you are well aware the department does not take positions for or against legislation. When requested, the department appears at the public hearing for informational purposes when requested by either a committee chairman or a bill’s primary author. This has been administration policy since 2011.”

Given that committee chairs are Republicans and the author of bills weakening regulations are likely to be Republicans, this means DNR staff are unlikely to be asked to attend the hearings and thus won’t provide any technical information.

So who provides the needed information? “Then it falls either to special interest lobbyists or legislators, “ says Amber Meyer Smith, a lobbyist for Clean Wisconsin and former DNR staffer. “Many of the legislators do great work, but I think they would all admit they’re not experts on natural resources management.”

But the experts have been silenced. Stepp “has been very clear that they don’t make policy,” Smith notes. “She is very proud of that. ‘That’s the legislators’ job,’ she said.”

Helping to enforce that policy was a formal legal opinion in May 2016 by Attorney General Brad Schimel declaring that DNR regulators “can’t consider the cumulative effect that hundreds of high-capacity wells exert on lakes, streams and groundwater when deciding whether to approve new wells,” as the State Journal reported.

Conservationists condemned the opinion as a violation of the DNR’s state constitutional duty to protect the waters, and have challenged it in court. But Schimel’s opinion was lauded by the Koch Brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity. The opinion, said AFP Wisconsin director Eric Bott, “makes it crystal clear that bureaucrats don’t get to make law. That is the job of the Legislature.”

Which is precisely how Walker and Steep have operated, removing the state’s experts on natural resources from all legislative policy making. “The staff at DNR are very hesitant to communicate about anything,” says Meyer.

This is much easier to enforce now that Walker and the legislature have dismantled the civil service system, which had served the state for 110 years under 26 governors, including 17 Republicans. Now all hiring and firing can be made based on political decisions rather than merit.

“That has put employees at risk,” Meyer says. “They’re not willing to talk about anything.”

At a legislative hearing this week, Sen. Kathleen Vinehout noted she now has trouble getting any kind of information from DNR staff. “There’s been a lot of talk about the DNR staff being muzzled,” Meyer Smith notes.

But none of that talk, you can be sure, is coming from the staff themselves. That could get them fired.

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14 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Muzzling of the DNR”

  1. tim haering says:

    Bruce, understanding evolution, it is reasonable to assume CWD-precursors have culled the deer herd for millennia before the dawn of the DNR – and we still have deer. Science sez leave them alone, and they’ll come home. Deer with natural immunity will eventually repopulate the state. Hunters may have to find other entertainment for a few decades.

    What did knowledge of West Nile do to slow its inexorable and deadly spread through the bird population, from East to West in perhaps a decade? If you see Science as interventionist, somehow superior to Nature, then I can see your inflammation at DNR.

    Walker didn’t muzzle DNR, he simple told them to quiet down. Stepp went to and picked out the muzzle.

    Have a swell weekend.

  2. As we continue down the path of being the experimental lab for all of the idea’s of how to make America Great, it appears we are destroying what does make America Great.

  3. David Ciepluch says:

    Walker has gutted their budget and fired the experts at DNR that spent a lifetime, first in education, then decades of experience in writing rules, interpreting them, educating the public and businesses. The people with knowledge and experience are no longer around, or too few in numbers to make a positive difference. They are no longer in a position to provide dissenting voices to oppose the open exploitation and rape of the landscape and resources, air, and water.

    In regards to Tim’s comments on CWD, there is no known cure and prions, and dead diseased deer decay on the landscape leave the prions in the soil for decades to come, as other deer graze and pick up the disease. I would not consume any deer from Wisconsin. And yes humans continue to alter the environment with reckless abandon, and not for the betterment. It is always to the detriment.

    Great Britain killed thousands of cattle due to CWD. People do get CWD in different forms and it is a disease that is still under study.

  4. Virginia says:

    Great reporting, Bruce. It’s truly alarming political feat that Walker, Stepp, Schimel a GOP legislature have been able to effectively dismantle–since 2011–more than 100 years of Wisconsin’s leadership and stewardship in every aspect of conservation and environmentalism.

    The big question is whether the many hunters, anglers, operators of tourism venues and other businesses who depend on healthy natural resources will effectively speak up and try to stop this destruction. The only winners in gutting Wisconsin’s environment are a few politicians and corporate polluters.

    This is not just about whether scientists can do their jobs (they can–and do–leave for greener pastures). It’s about the devastated landscape that will be left behind for others to try to repair.

  5. old baldy says:


    Your incorrect assessment of the CWD spread isn’t going to win you any prizes t a science fair. CWD isn’t native to WI, and was brought into the state with captive deer from states farther west. The anti-science position of the current DNR doesn’t make sense regarding CWD, nor most all other environmental programs and natural resource management programs. It’s a sad day for WI.

  6. Bea says:

    “When requested, the department appears at the public hearing for informational purposes when requested by either a committee chairman or a bill’s primary author. This has been administration policy since 2011.”
    This was also very true of agencies during passage of Taconite Tom’s mining bill.
    (The story’s second sentence has something missing.)

  7. David Ciepluch says:

    WI claims the tourism industry is well over $17 Billion annually. Protection of clean lakes, and the few crumbs of pristine areas that remain did not happen by accident. It took generations of thoughtful, inspirational, visionary folks that helped bring about the clean air, water, and landscape we enjoy today. We have made some headway as a society and still have a great distance to achieve with many needed improvements in our actions and protections.

    I still recall the acrid coal burning days of the 1950s, and Solvay Coke that was the #1 air polluter in the state till 1983 when the open ovens were shut down. I lived nearby and cinders would rain ash on my new Chevy Nova. And their are still hundreds of properties around the state that leach a variety of chemical stews, and one dairy farmer with manure piles adjacent a waterway that can ruin and entire Wisconsin Lake.

    Ignorant, and corporate sponsored politicians like Walker drive a stake in that progress for the profit and exploitation of a few of his benefactors that find regulations inconvenient for their profit and theft exploitation business practices at the expense of all of us. The laws implemented by Republicans come right from ALEC and written by corporate attorneys for their benefit only. Florida has recognized the need for protection of their coastlines from oil development since tourism is the wealth of their state. The city of Naples alone collects more in annual property taxes than the entire state of Wisconsin.

  8. Randy Cooper says:

    I hope those who are responsible for this rapid decline in the wise stewardship of our precious natural resources are around to see the ultimate decline of our tourism industry. They will see the demise of the deer population and other environmental protections to the point that our many lakes and streams are so polluted and unfishable or drawn so far to have dried up. Then how many votes will they get?

  9. Ookomis says:

    I have to wonder why so many people in this state insist on learning everything the hard way, but even then, still don’t seem to learn? I’m not going to repeat what others have already written about the devastation we face from our deer population in regards to hunting, to fishing and water recreation, to the tourism industry and poisoning of the people who rely on these water supplies for clean drinking water. Those are all of the obvious talking points and they are all on mark. It’s a long list on how much we lose and a very short list of who wins.

    I want people to think a little deeper. We are living in a very strange time right now. We are looking at a high potential for more terror attacks, war overseas, and potentially, civil war here at home, all at the same time. I remember my mother and grandparents telling me about the bomb shelters from their generations, the preparations that were made when facing another potential war, etc. Today we do nothing but hope, pray, and tear each other and our homeland apart. Only months ago we watched Russia hack into a state power grid. They know now that they can get in, and how they got in. How can that not scare anyone? What happens if we all wake up some morning to sirens blaring and things around us exploding out of nowhere? Yes… that CAN happen here just as much as it can happen anywhere. What are desperate, hungry people going to do in a state like WI if our grids went down and we needed food? We hunt, we fish, we farm, we help our neighbors and we share, we pool our resources for the benefit of all. At least we used to. What happens when there is nothing to hunt, fish, or farm safely? What happens when nukes are no longer a worry because our own tap water is killing us instead? All of this mess with the health care and millions about to lose coverage, and at the same time Walker & his minions are doing everything in their power to make sure we DO get sick, from something, somewhere in this state. What is that going to do for the average family, the many working poor in this state? And when the worst happens, such as our water supply contaminated and no federal funding to help fix it, how are we going to handle that? Who’s going to warn us? Who’s going to guide the authorities through the cleanup process to make things safe again? And something that everyone in this state seems to recognize as an issue, who’s going to pay for it? I saved a whole $3 on my property taxes this year. WooHoo! What do you want to bed its going to cost me more than $3 to help cover cleanup of a major toxic algae bloom from one of this state’s main drinking water sources?

    And while we’re worrying about who’s going to pay the ultimate price in all of this, talk to our small business owners and ask them what happens to their businesses when tourism disappears and the locals are broke. They quickly become one of those locals who goes broke.

    I have lived 45 of my 47 yrs in this state. I have raised my children here and am now helping to raise my grandchildren here. It rips my heart out to hear my children talk of the need to move to another state so they can survive, so they can find work opportunities that no longer exist here. They want to go somewhere they aren’t taxed to death and their hard work means something at the end of the day. And because I love them I don’t blame them for wanting to go. If hubby & I were able, we would probably move away too. I want to live where the air is clean, the water is safe, the wildlife and hunting and fishing are abundant. I want to live where we are in harmony with Mother Earth, sustaining each other, as it should be. Wisconsin used to be a place I could do that, which made the higher cost of living worth it to me. Our environment has been in a free fall for years and we are now staring at a bottomless pit. Walker has got to go! This GOP money grubbing legislature has to go! When do we the people get to matter again? When is it important to take care of us and our needs and desires? When do we get to stop funding cruelty, destruction, and greed, and start taking care of ourselves and our own? These people… they’re not “one of us”. They gave up that title when they wrote/changed the first law that hurt us. This… this is insane.

  10. William Iwen says:

    Our job #1 as citizens of Wisconsin is to resist
    Walker, Schimel, & this perverse dangerous administraton by every means possible.

  11. David Ciepluch says:

    Randy, once a resource or wonder is gone, the people that grow up around that lost resource have no idea that it was there before. They only know the present. We have children in Milwaukee that have never seen the lakefront. I have neighbors that are completely unaware there is a creek a block from our homes, since it is covered by concrete, and they have no concern about changing it back to a natural system.

    When Europeans arrived on the shores of the Americas they immediately and dramatically altered the landscape here by wiping out wildlife by 1776, Bison, millions of acres of prairie, canal systems that led to alteration of the Great Lakes with invasive species, nearly complete deforestation, paving over waterways, and stored soil carbon removal by tilling agriculture, genocide of millions of First Nation People, enslavement of millions of Africans and their genocide, wars, rampant disposal of waste, spreading millions of tons annually upon the landscape with salt, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer, etc.

    Humans have a very heavy footprint on the planet. What we set aside and protect has been rather recent history and a few crumbs based on a short term learning process since the 1960s. We are on a path of regression where exploitation of the environment and human beings can continue as has happened throughout history. Maybe the short period of things like DNR, EPA, OSHA, CDC, the Great Middle Class, and some enlightenment are a mere aberration of history. As human population continues to grow exponentially towards 7 Billion, degradation and alteration will also accelerate. The USA is 4.7% of the planet’s population and consumes 25-40% of all available resources including energy.

  12. C. Bensinger says:

    Due to complete, intentional and chronic regulatory failure by the DNR and the WI legislature, a very serious public health crisis and environmental tragedy is rapidly unfolding north of here in Kewaunee County. The large-scale dairies (CAFOs) have so contaminated the ground and surface waters of the area with dangerous microorganisms, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria, that the area is quickly becoming too toxic for residential occupancy.

  13. David Ciepluch says:

    C. Bensinger – Dairy farming in Wisconsin has traditionally been a family sized business. It is recent history that large corporate farms have sprung up. Large concentrations for cattle and waste over thin layers of soil with the Niagara Escarpment just below are recipes for biological and organic overload of surface and groundwater.

    It is not WDNR and regulations that are the problem but legislators and governors that do not believe in regulating environmental problems. You can have the best regulations but if there is no enforcement behind it, or political will, this is the outcome.

    The 10th Amendment clearly states, that government through states will protect the health, safety, and welfare of citizens. And government officials violate the oath they take to abide and protect the laws the minute they hold office. They are not held accountable.

  14. Jeanie Carlin says:

    I totally agree we have to stand up especially for our water the great lakes are no longer going to be great the DNR is supposed to act as our EPA and if they’re afraid to speak up because they’ll lose jobs and they’re taking away their manpower what are we to do get involved read up educate talk to people stand up take back your power and remind the people in office that they are public servants and work for us get out of your comfort zone do it for the generations to come and for us !

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