National environmental groups urge Kaul to remove Republican Natural Resources Board chair who refuses to leave

By: - July 22, 2021 6:47 am
Gray wolf (photo from Pixabay)

Gray wolf (photo from Pixabay)

Two national groups, the Humane Society of the United States and Center for Biological Diversity, wrote a letter to Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul on Tuesday pleading for him to use his authority to remove Natural Resources Board Chair Fred Prehn from the post he has refused to vacate for months. 

Prehn, a Republican, has refused to leave his position, even though his term expired May 1 and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has nominated his replacement, who Prehn is blocking from being seated. 

The Wausau dentist and cranberry marsh owner has indicated he plans to stay in his post past the board’s August meeting and protests against his move have only emboldened him. 

The Natural Resources Board sets Wisconsin conservation policy and is in control of controversial issues such as wolf hunting and the regulation of harmful pollutants in state drinking water

“Dr. Prehn’s continued presence on the NRB undermines the integrity of the succession process and harms the interests of individuals and organizations concerned with the sound, responsible, and accountable management of natural resources held in the public trust,” the letter, written by an attorney for local law firm Pines Bach, states. “More fundamentally, allowing Dr. Prehn to hold a public office to which he is no longer legally entitled runs contrary to basic norms of governance, at a time when faith in public institutions is already being eroded to dangerous effect.”

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Prehn has been relying on a quirk in state law which allows public officials to retain their post until their replacement has been confirmed. But the two national groups say this is a misinterpretation of state statutes and that Kaul has the power to haul Prehn into court and remove him from office. 

Prehn’s continued refusal to leave has allowed Republican appointees to maintain majority control of the powerful seven-member body. The two groups say it’s essential that Evers appointees gain control of the board before August because that is when it is expected to set the quotas for the fall wolf hunt. 

“Wisconsin’s brutal winter wolf hunt showed that the Natural Resources Board needs new leadership, someone who actually cares about the state’s wolves and other wildlife,” Collette Adkins, carnivore conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Prehn should accept that his term is over and finally step down before he does any more damage. That would go a long way toward restoring the public’s faith in those who set the state’s wildlife policy.”

Nicholas Arrivo, a Humane Society attorney, says Prehn’s actions are “undemocratic” and argues the statutes that outline appointments to the NRB don’t allow for members to hold onto their posts past the end of their term — a possibility specifically allowed for other public positions. 

Prehn holding onto his post has drawn criticism from environmental groups across the political spectrum — and Wisconsin dentists. Arrivo says that Prehn’s interpretation of the law is wrong. 

“Had the Legislature wanted to allow NRB members to hold over, they knew how to do so and made the decision not to,” he tells the Wisconsin Examiner. “It’s a straightforward argument from the statute that he can’t stay in this position after his term has expired.” 

In a state in which Republican officials have frequently moved to take power away from Democrats in executive office, Arrivo says Prehn’s actions should not be allowed and that there is a clear way for Kaul to remove him — Wisconsin Statute 784.04

That statute gives the state attorney general the power to take action “when any person shall usurp, intrude into or unlawfully hold or exercise any public office, civil or military.” Kaul, according to Arrivo, has the power to bring a complaint to a state circuit court and convince a judge to remove Prehn.

“There’s a mechanism to get him out and I think a clear legal argument that he shouldn’t be there,” Arrivo says. “It is really topsy turvy and counterintuitive the way folks have been looking at it.” 

But aside from the effort to uphold democratic norms in the state, Arrivo says it’s important because of the implications Prehn’s actions have on state environmental policy. 

“Mr. Prehn’s brazen refusal to leave office at the end of his term defies the law and tarnishes the integrity of the Natural Resources Board, which is entrusted with managing the state’s wildlife in public trust for all Wisconsin citizens, present and future,” Arrivo said in a statement. “A state office of extraordinary significance to the public interest cannot be held hostage by the cynical whims of one man, and we urge Attorney General Kaul to take prompt action to remedy the situation.”

So far, Arrivo says the groups have not heard back from the Wisconsin Department of Justice. DOJ also did not respond to a request for comment.

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.

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