The Muzzling of the DNR
Gagged by the Walker administration, its staff no longer provide any information.
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.
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.
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.”
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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