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Conservation Congress Gives Wisconsin Citizens Voice on Wildlife & Environmental Issues

Susan Bence
Milwaukee Public Radio
Milwaukee County resident reviews ideas on DNR policy submitted by citizens who post and introduce them at Conservation Congress spring meeting.

A decades-old tradition unfolded at West Allis Central High on Monday evening - and at schools and courthouses in every county in the state. The Wisconsin Conservation Congress conducted its annual spring hearings.

The Conservation Congress was created in 1934 to give the public the opportunity to weigh in on how Wisconsin’s resources are managed. And, the hearings give the public the opportunity speak out and cast ballots on how the state should manage its environment and natural resources.

Despite miserable weather, approximately 180 people showed up for what turned out to be a 3 ½ hour discussion at the West Allis school.

The meeting began with voting. Each county has five delegates who serve on the Congress – some for two-, others for three-year-terms. Anyone 18 and older can nominate someone, or themselves, to run, which means standing up and telling the crowd why it should vote for you in three minutes or less.

Credit Susan Bence
Barbara Maniotis ran successfully to serve as a Conservation Congress delegate representing Milwaukee County.

Milwaukee resident Barbara Maniotis gave it a try.

“Ever since I moved here seven years ago, I’ve been swimming in Lake Michigan. I helped with the sturgeon introduction last year. I love hiking in the parks. I participate in target practice, bows and with rifles as well. I have a favorite spot by the river and I have a fishing license that I get every year.” Maniotis added, “I have a huge stake in the resources here.”

She was victorious, but only after a runoff vote. Attendees filled out small paper ballots that were hand-counted by existing delegates and DNR staff. When the vote was too tight, they repeated the process to guarantee a clear winner.

The Department of Natural Resources also had a series of proposed rule changes regarding fisheries and wildlife management. Each proposal was read and the public commented and voted on paper ballots. Citizens also submitted their own resolutions, which were posted on the wall at the back of the auditorium.

Ryan Hoffmann proposed giving tournament anglers a bit more leeway on the size and number of fish they catch-and-release during competitions, while providing the DNR with useful data.

“We are required to submit all of our catch-and-release data to the biologist, especially given the budgetary pressure that the state is under right now, sometimes going through and doing surveys is expensive, it’s time consuming, it’s difficult for biologist to do. So as biologists passes a new resolution, we give them a chance to find out if it is working - how is the size structure functioning, how many fish are in the area, that sort of thing.” Hoffmann added, “That’s the purpose of the resolution. I would ask you to vote for it.”

At least ONE person said she wouldn’t be voting yes. “My name is Rachel and I’m from Milwaukee County. I would ask people to vote no on this resolution because even though the fish are released, they are traumatized and injured from being caught and a lot of them might subsequently die,” she said.

Mike Neiduski, Milwaukee County Chair of the Conservation Congress, introduced four dozen advisory questions the Conservation Congress is considering, such as a proposed moratorium on stormwater and air permits for frac sand mining  as well as establishing a Sandhill crane hunting season.

Again, citizens could comment and ask questions, and then vote.

John Rennpferd, a member of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, exercised his right to comment frequently, including in favor of adequate and consistent funding of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund.

“For example, right now Excel Energy was going to build a nuclear power plant in the 1970s. They canceled that project and sat on that land for the last 40 years. They offered to sell the property to the state but there’s a window of opportunity, we have to purchase it. If we don’t do it it, we’re going to lose 3,000 acres of pristine untouched wild area that’s appropriate for multi use- everybody: hunters, anglers, kayakers, campers, hikers,” he said. “Without this funding, and if we don’t restore this funding, these opportunities are going to be lost permanently.”

On a lighter note, Monday evening people got to vote on the possibility that the wild turkey be named the Wisconsin state game bird.

All of the votes from all of spring meetings will be tallied and that input will be passed on the Natural Resources Board and the DNR. The full Conservation Congress convenes its annual convention May 12 and 13 in Oshkosh and that too is open to the public.

The Wisconsin Conversation Congress is considered to be a model for other states – in directly engaging citizens, literally “casting a ballot” on the management of Wisconsin’s natural resources and environment.

Credit Susan Bence
Delegate Scott Schoenike (left) chair Mike Neiduski and DNR conservation warden Blaine Ziarek after Monday meeting.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.