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Former Employees Raise Concerns About Wisconsin DNR

S Bence
The Wisconsin River

Forty-five former Department of Natural Resources' staff and administrative heads have publicly expressed concern that the agency is not carrying out its mission of protecting Wisconsin’s environment. They took their message to the EPA in the form of letters.

In the letters, the authors list what they perceive to be the "most serious problems with the new DNR," which include:

The current DNR top management, the Governor, and the Legislature exhibit anti-science behavior including: drastic cuts in science budgets; orders to cease discussion of climate change and its effects on the environment; gag orders on DNR employees commenting on science issues (only DNR administrators may speak to the press); and exclusion of science professionals from negotiating sessions with entities seeking DNR permits or approvals.

Fish biologist Will Wawrzyn, who was with the DNR for 38 years, signed a letter. “Signatories to the letter had an average 20-30 years with the agency and some longer and we felt our perspective mattered because we’ve invested our careers in protecting and managing Wisconsin’s natural resources,” Wawrzyn says.

The former DNR employees' appeal for EPA attention comes on the heels of another letter. In October, 16 Wisconsin residents asked the EPA to review, what its authors describe as, state deficiencies in carrying out the Clean Water Act - 75 deficiencies to be exact.

While Wawrzyn and his colleagues share that concern, theirs run deeper: the current state budget cuts to the DNR, in particular its Bureau of Science Services. Its scientists have supplied those in the field with research ranging from estimating deer herd size to the effects of invasive species.

Wawrzyn says the information has been invaluable. “One of the things our scientists were involved with, using very good models and very good data. They never really offered an opinion; what they were doing was using the best available modeling of where our climate is headed, and I think and that got the ire of some people in the administration or elsewhere,” he says.

Wawrzyn believes sound science collided with state leaders’ desire to streamline permitting.

Scott Manley is vice president of government relations for the business group, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. He describes the retirees' message as riddled with misinformation, including about cuts in DNR science.

“They’re talking about a reorganization change in the most recent state budget that was signed into law in July and hasn’t been fully implemented now. I don’t think it’s a reduction in the number of scientists, it’s just dispersing that personal within the dept. within the DNR, instead of having them in a single bureau,” Manley says.

Manley believes the DNR is moving in the right direction to balance what he describes as quality of life – clean air and clean water – with bringing business and jobs to the state.

“I think what businesses want is regulatory certainty and they want a process when they apply for a permit, they get a yes or no answer in a reasonable amount of time. I think there are still certain types of permits, like wetland and some types of well permits and air permits that still take longer than businesses would like to see, especially when we see how long it takes to get those types of permits in other states,” Manley says.

Lyman Wible served as the DNR's administrator of environmental quality for 12 years, from 1982 to 1994, and he signed the letter to the EPA.

"I think the DNR administration exhibited a lack of understanding; perhaps an ignorance of the natural sciences," Wible says. He says the federal agency holds sway only so far, for example, examining Wisconsin’s compliance with the Clean Water Act.

Wible hopes his group’s broader concern catches hold within the state. “We had a national reputation for being good natural resources managers. Industry viewed us as tough - but citizens perceived it differently. They protect our natural resource rights,” he says. “Long-term experience tells us that it’s better to use all the scientific information you can bring to these issues.”

Other DNR retirees reportedly feel the same and are queuing up in support of the requests for EPA intervention.

Spokespeople for both the federal environmental agency and Wisconsin's DNR say they are reviewing the letters and have no further comment at this time.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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