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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

WI DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp Joins Trump Administration

Cathy Stepp

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp has accepted an appointment with the Environmental Protection Agency. 

She's been named deputy administrator for Region 7, which includes Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri.

Gov. Walker selected Stepp to head the Wisconsin DNR back in 2011 - the first woman to do so. Before that, Stepp and her husband owned a home building business and from 2003 to 2007, she served as a Republican State Senator representing the Racine area.

As a business woman, Stepp was critical of the DNR, accusing it of being bureaucratic and slow moving.

Stepp lead the DNR during an era when the governor and Republicans in the Legislature set out to significantly modify the department's size and structure. The Legislature also altered environmental regulations; passing legislation to bring an iron ore mine to northern Wisconsin. Ultimately, the business pulled out.

Stepp espoused a retooled DNR with what she called improved customer service skills. Critics argued that what Stepp really meant to make the DNR a more business-friendly agency. She defended her priorities during a 2012 interview:

"There’s a stereotype – when you say customer service that suddenly means take away all rules. It doesn’t mean that at all. It means apply the same rules the same way to everybody. There has never been any intervention on the part of me our my leadership team to try and stop something happening on violators. The governor has been emphatic about that – he said do things right, based on sound science, common sense, get the job done. That’s what we’re doing."

Secretary Stepp was also in the thick of Waukesha’s hotly-debated request to draw drinking water from Lake Michigan to replace the supply from its radium-tainted wells. After years of drafts and revisions, her team reviewed the final application and deemed it approvable before it was scrutinized and passed by all eight Great Lakes states.

Environmental concerns swelled both throughout and after the approval process. Some predicted that a yes to Waukesha would usher in a flood of applications to use Lake Michigan water.

Stepp dismissed the concerns in June of last year, just after the Great Lakes states approved the diversion:

“I’ve always had faith in the way the Compact was negotiated many years ago, the terms of the Compact that I think should be able to diminish some of those concerns about precedence. The Compact was written in the way for these types of exceptions for a reason, and it’s just a privilege to be the first one out of the gate to demonstrate how well it can work."

Gov. Walker’s biennial budget is still working its way through the legislature, but his plan calls for reorganized DNR that includes eliminating its science research bureau and dispersing its 15 remaining scientists throughout the agency.

>> WUWM Reporting on Wisconsin's DNR

If it's approved, that restructuring will take place under another person's leadership.

And that new someone will likely emerge as the DNR's cheerleader for the huge factory proposed in Racine or Kenosha County. The Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn wants to make LCD screens there. The state is offering an unprecedented $3 billion incentives package to the company. The deal includes loosening state environmental regulations.

Stepp has been making the case that the environment will be adequately protected under the plan, including at a recent Natural Resources Board meeting:

“There are no environmental standards that are being rolled back. There are some duplicative where we do some things and the federal government does some things. We’re of course going to be evaluating environmental impacts throughout each individual permit that might be required."

She told board members the DNR is up to the task to help the plant get off the ground.

“There’s been some worry that DNR doesn’t have the staff to or the ability to take on project of this magnitude I assure you nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the beauty and serendipity of our alignment plan that we’ve been working on for the last two years have brought us to this point, where we stand at the ready."

Early assessments of Stepp's legacy differ sharply.

The pro-business group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce put out a statement yesterday, saying Stepp made the DNR more accountable, while ensuring it served its vital mission to the people of the state.

Environmental advocates had harsh words. George Meyer, a former DNR secretary who heads the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, told the Capitol Times that he's known seven DNR secretaries and among them, Stepp has the "worst record" in terms of protecting the environment.

Gov. Walker has appointed DNR Deputy Secretary Kurt Thiede to serve as interim secretary, effective this Thursday.

Stepp issued the following statement regarding her DNR departure:

I am deeply grateful to Governor Walker for believing in my abilities when he named me to the post of DNR Secretary over 6 ½ years ago. No one gets to this point in their career without the help and support of many people. It’s impossible to thank them all individually. We have the best leadership team in state government at WIDNR. They will continue to lead the men and women of our agency who give their spirit to their work every day. I am proud of the customer service ethic we watched flourish in our staff, and the communication we have inspired between our agency and our customers. We’ve demonstrated how we can have job creation and environmental protection. I’m excited and humbled at the opportunity to bring many of the reforms we’ve implemented in DNR to the national scene.

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