Imagine a big neon beer sign on the top of Wildcat Mountain State Park — make that Budweiser Mountain State Park.
Then there’s Koch Industries State Park near Trempealeau, formerly Perrot, where you can climb to the top of Chemical Bluff and watch sand mining operations below — the industry that has exploded in our region thanks to the powerless nature of the Natural Resources Board that can only advise and not set policy. That’s the way it has been since 18 positions were eliminated in the DNR’s Science Service Bureau, industry sets scientific and environmental policy. It’s easier that way, because they already write mining legislation.
State parks have become the domain of the well-to-do since the state decided to stop providing tax dollars and raised admission and camping fees. You always can find free access to nature in public lands in the stewardship program, right? Perhaps, but future land acquisitions are frozen, more public land is being sold, and the logging industry is cutting more timber thanks to less regulation and oversight.
Welcome to the vision of Gov. Scott Walker’s Wisconsin. Because all of the above are proposals being considered in the governor’s budget.
Wisconsin has a long and rich history of conserving natural resources. Public access and enjoyment of those resources is one of our state’s major attractions for both residents and visitors. Wisconsin was the first state to designate a state park in 1878. The creation of what became known as the Warren Knowles-Gaylord Nelson Stewardship fund — named after two former governors — was a bipartisan effort. Our region is strong in conservancy, which is appropriate with our fragile ecosystems such as the bluffs and prairies.
The Natural Resources Board was formed in 1928 after a group of conservationists — including Aldo Leopold — helped pass the Wisconsin Conservation Act in 1927, creating what was then called the Wisconsin Conservation Commission. It is a seven-member citizen body that votes on rule changes and sets policy for the DNR. Walker’s proposal would make it advisory only and allow the DNR secretary and staff to have all the power.
Former Gov. Tommy Thompson in 1995 used the budget bill to remove the authority of the board to select the DNR secretary. Board members are appointed by the governor.
DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp told the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee that the current structure is unnecessary and it “compounds the bureaucracy.”
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Christine Thomas, the dean of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point College of Natural Resources, has been a board member since 2003. She wrote a doctoral thesis on the Natural Resources Board. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist recently pointed to what Thomas said at a 2011 board meeting:
“The state Legislature can take our powers away from us. They can eliminate us if the citizens of this state decide that it is more important for the person with the most money and most influence to win. (If they decide) the only group of people that can stand up for the resource regardless of sociology and regardless of anyone’s self-interest is not worth having, then so be it. But I think (the NRB) is one of the best things about Wisconsin.”
Yes, the state has a budget deficit, and there are concerns about the amount of debt service that the DNR pays on land, which Stepp said is $1.6 million a week. So let the Natural Resources Board come up with ways to save money — don’t penalize it for budgetary decisions made by the governor and the Legislature that led to the massive budget deficit.
We hope that the Legislature will listen to more than a dozen groups from agricultural to environmental that are opposed to turning the DNR board into an advisory panel. But we’re not confident because there seems to be a tin ear lately in Madison when it comes to listening to the public.
Protecting our environment and making sure there is affordable access to public land should not be political. Enjoying our outdoor treasures in Wisconsin is surely a bipartisan issue we can all support. We have an $18 billion tourism industry that relies heavily on outdoor recreation.
Where is the evidence that the DNR board system is broken and doesn’t work? If its role is to be simply advisory, why have it all?
Let’s just close all of our parks and put all of our public land up for sale to the highest bidder and let our children and grandchildren play in between the slag piles, polluted streams and scrub brush. That may be easier to take in one blow than watching something we hold so near and dear to our great state getting methodically ravaged piece by piece.