New DNR Secretary wants agency to ‘be a leader not a follower’

By: - January 20, 2023 6:45 am

DNR Secretary-designee Adam Payne (second from right) and his family on a deer hunt. (Department of Natural Resources)

In a speech at his daughter’s wedding, Adam Payne, the newly appointed secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), told a story about the first time he went deer hunting with her and the joy they shared when she harvested a doe and buck that day. 

In an interview with the Wisconsin Examiner, Payne says all of his favorite hunting and fishing stories involve his children. 

“The pure joy of the moment, and then we got to share that together, I will never forget it for as long as I live,” he says.

Now responsible for the state agency charged with managing the state’s wildlife and protecting its environment, Payne’s job involves protecting the state’s land and water so parents and children in Wisconsin can continue to make those memories. 

Payne says his top ten favorite hunting and fishing stories involve his children. (Department of Natural Resources)

“I think I’m fortunate that my parents, particularly my dad, but both my mom and dad were outdoors people, taught me how wonderful it is to be outdoors. You know, whether you’re fishing or hunting or trapping or canoeing or bird watching or skiing or whatever it is,” he says. “And I think when you spend time in the outdoors, you gain just that much more of an appreciation for how precious it is, how important it is. And so they shared those values and instilled those values with me. And now I have the opportunity to do the same for my kids. And as secretary of the DNR, I want to support organizations that are trying to engage people and especially young people, to get outdoors and enjoy our state parks and our trails and our hiking and our skiing.”

But Payne is taking over the agency at a precarious moment for the state’s environment. 

A changing climate is threatening to increase flooding on the state’s inland rivers and lakes, further erode the Lake Michigan coastline and harm the habitat of the state’s wildlife. Water systems across Wisconsin are suffering from pollution from nitrates, PFAS and other contaminants as the effort to clean that pollution up has devolved into a political battle involving a Democratic governor, the Republican-held Legislature and industry lobbying groups. Ongoing fights over hunting regulations, forestry rules and the changing nature of the state’s agricultural industry all fall under Payne’s new purview. 

A Plymouth resident who most recently spent 24 years as the Sheboygan County administrator, Payne says his background in local government will help him build consensus between disparate interest groups and find solutions that protect the state’s environment. 

He pointed to Sheboygan County’s Amsterdam Dunes preservation project which had the double benefit of protecting more than 300 acres of important shoreline habitat while creating a so-called wetland mitigation bank that allowed businesses in the area to grow and use credits from the bank if a different wetland was destroyed during construction. 

“The neat thing about the DNR is — though you have all these different factions and yes, it can be controversial and we’re all gonna take our share of bullets from time to time — it’s also, I think, it’s a pretty cool challenge to be able to work with so many different entities and stakeholders and learn from them and just grow from their different points of view and their cultures and their background and then try to piece it together and build consensus and at the end of the day, do what’s right for our environment and the people that rely on it,” he says. 

Payne says his son is a more patient hunter than he is. (Department of Natural Resources)

One advantage Payne will have over his predecessor Preston Cole is a Natural Resources Board more closely aligned with the environmental policy aims of Payne and Gov. Tony Evers. 

The NRB is a body responsible for setting DNR policy. The seven-member board consists of three representatives from the northern and southern portions of the state and one at-large member. At least one member must have an agricultural background and at least three members must have held a hunting, fishing or trapping license in seven of the last 10 years. 

Under Cole, one of the board’s members, Wausau dentist Frederick Prehn, refused to leave his seat for nearly two years past his term’s expiration in May of 2021. Prehn’s refusal to leave in the face of widespread political pressure and a lawsuit that went all the way up to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, entrenched control of the body in the hands of a majority appointed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker. 

Cole and DNR staff frequently clashed with the Republican-controlled board on issues such as water quality and hunting regulations. 

“I think that we’re gonna see a significant difference in the collaboration between the Natural Resources Board and this department,” Payne says, adding that he went back to watch every NRB meeting over the last few years and was especially frustrated by how often the board ignored the expertise of agency staff. 

“I really think there’s gonna be a significant difference in the teamwork, the collaboration, the interaction between the board and the agency,” he says. “And that doesn’t mean that the policymakers shouldn’t be respectfully challenging us or seeking information, what have you. Good people can agree to disagree, but at the end of the day, we should be able to pull together and make sure that we’re moving the ball forward when it comes to enhancing our water quality or preserving and protecting our wildlife habitat.” 

Just a few weeks into Payne’s tenure, the DNR’s efforts to manage PFAS contamination across the state have been tested. On Thursday, the agency announced it was distributing bottled water to private well owners in the Oneida County town of Stella after two dozen wells were found to have high levels of PFAS present in the water. 

Payne (Department of Natural Resources)

As a veteran of county government, Payne compared PFAS mitigation efforts to local transportation management. If a stretch of highway has potholes, it is often much cheaper to immediately fix the problem rather than “kick the can down the road” until it’s a much more expensive issue.

“If you don’t fix that pothole or you don’t repair that road and you just kick the can down the road, it gets really, really expensive to repair that road,” he says. “You go from maintenance to potentially completely rebuilding that road. You go from maybe $100,000 cost per mile to $1 million, $2 million per mile to rebuild it. Ridiculous. Why would you kick the can down the road?” 

“I think about that with water quality a little bit,” he continues. “Why would we not take actions today to make sure that we’re not spending so much more down the road to address or remediate or rebuild water facilities or re-drill people’s wells? Is that the future we want? So I’d like to see the NRB and our Legislature certainly be more supportive of Gov. Evers and the funds that have been provided in the past and I anticipate will be provided in the governor’s proposed budget to be more aggressive to be a leader rather than a follower.”


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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.