The 2022 meeting of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress. (WCC Facebook)
Conservation groups are raising an alarm about a rule change made by the Wisconsin Conservation Congress (WCC) which would make it harder for citizens to contribute questions to an annual survey that policymakers use to shape statewide policies on issues such as water quality and hunting rules.
The WCC was created in 1934 and has served as an important avenue for members of the public to express their views to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and members of the Natural Resources Board (NRB). The main way that the WCC facilitates this communication is through an annual survey.
WCC delegates are elected by the counties, which hold annual hearings in which citizens can propose resolutions to have their questions placed on the survey. If passed at the county level, issue specific committees of the WCC consider the questions and vote on whether or not the resolution should be included in the final survey.
The survey results have tangible effects on state policy. Lawmakers and NRB members frequently rely on the resulting data to understand public sentiment on issues.
“We really do use the surveys,” says Sen. Diane Hesselbein (D-Middleton), who sits on the Senate’s Natural Resources and Energy Committee. “It’s helpful to hear the debate that goes on. Not just in Dane County but across the state of Wisconsin to see what the temperature is out there.”
Greg Kazmierski, who until recently was the chair of the NRB, expounded on the valuable role the WCC plays at the board’s last meeting.
“But the Congress is really valuable to this board,” Kazmierski said. “So we need to cherish that stuff, because we’re one of the few states that has a system like that, where there’s that much public interaction with the policymakers. So we want to keep that embedded in our culture here in Wisconsin, for wildlife management, the environment.”
But conservationists have complained that the WCC and its issue committees are controlled by pro-hunting interests who vote down their resolutions out of hand because they don’t like questions on the survey that ask how citizens feel about topics such as banning hunting hounds.
In the past, citizens had a workaround. Within the congress’ code of procedures was a provision that stated if the same resolution was passed by the same three counties in two consecutive years, the question would be put on the survey regardless of what the committee voted.
In last year’s survey, conservation groups managed to use the so-called 3:2 method to force questions on the banning of hounds to hunt wolves and an end to “wildlife killing contests” onto the survey.
The groups had also successfully used the method to advance several more questions that were set to go on this year’s survey. Those questions included the elimination of compensation for hound hunters whose dogs are injured or killed, banning the use of chocolate in bear bait and banning hunting at night for wolves and coyotes.
Activists are frequently opposed to hound hunting, which they see as abusive to both the dogs and the wild animals being hunted. They also oppose the use of chocolate in bait because it can be just as toxic to both bears and other animals — such as coyotes, wolves or foxes — drawn to the bait site as it is for household pets.
Hunters in Wisconsin have strongly defended the use of chocolate as bait, even though it’s banned in neighboring states. Last year, Carl Schoettel, president of the Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association, wrote that the organization was expecting a “hard push to get rid of chocolate.”
But in January, the WCC’s District Leadership Council, which is made up of two members from 11 districts, axed the 3:2 rule, stating that the conservation groups had found a “loophole” to get around the committees and “gamed the system” because the internet had made it too easy to have a resolution reach the threshold. The rule change was also made retroactive, meaning the seven questions that had already been advanced wouldn’t be allowed on this spring’s survey.
“They called it a loophole, but I’d say it’s a way around the most stacked and biased committees in the WCC,” Amy Mueller, a volunteer with the Sierra Club of Wisconsin, says.
Even though the survey results are just advisory and don’t necessarily result in any policy changes, Mueller says she believes if lawmakers and DNR staff knew public opinion about some of these issues, there might be a new law or rule implemented.
“It is just advisory; the question is, why are they so scared of it being a state level question?” she says. “It’s the public becoming more aware and I think they’re fearful of some of these practices being put in the sunlight. It’s just input. But what they’re afraid to show is that they’re very, very fearful to actually get the feedback that, ‘Oh wait, most of the state doesn’t agree with this.’ That would look bad, give legislators more ammunition to change or amend some of these laws. They don’t want to show there’s any opposition to what they do.”
Scott Pitta, a WCC member from Adams County, says the true value of the congress is the data it can provide policymakers, giving them and DNR staff years of information tracking how popular an idea has become.
“The congress is going to have to decide if they’re going to defend their positions, is that their role, are they guards at the bank? Or are they like an old-time telephone operator?” he says. “Ideally they help the citizens communicate with the state. ‘Let’s make orange the state’s favorite color,’ write a resolution, citizens can vote for it and then we have that data. If you ask it every few years, you can trend that data. The data of these hearings is the great value of the congress. Senators can parse out their districts to see how their constituents feel about conservation issues.”
When making the change, WCC members pointed to divides between urban and rural, northern and southern parts of the state, but Pitta says that divide doesn’t always show up in the survey results and that divide is often used by members to deride citizens for not being pro-hunting enough.
“If your resolution is a threat to the conservation congress, they will call you bad names, ‘you’re an anti or you’re a liberal or you’re uninformed,’” Pitta says. “It shouldn’t be that way. Citizens are customers, their opinions are all of equal value. The congress should not be separating citizens into good guys and bad guys. If we had a favorite color committee and the committee rejects your resolution because we already have a favorite color, if you wanted to bypass the committee, there was a go-around, a fix.”
“Now it’s all shut down,” he adds. “We’re getting rid of that loophole and how dare citizens question the status quo of the conservation congress. It’s American to question the status quo. We’re a free thinking society.”
Pitta says the change has come at a time when the WCC is becoming more accessible because of the internet. Meetings are live-streamed and votes can be taken online. At the meeting in January in which the rule was axed, members spent a long time discussing ways to increase public interaction with the congress.
“The congress really needs to think, what are we going to do? Are we going to burn our bridges with the public?” he says. “They wanted it to be hard, but now if you’ve got the numbers it’s easy, it’s all online. You’re pushing emails around, you’re not having anyone jump in their truck and drive to Monroe County or Price County so it’s a lot easier. But they feel like they lose control, they don’t want to lose control of which questions are asked.”
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On top of the end to the 3:2 rule, the congress is also moving forward with a rule that if it has already stated an “official position” on an issue, questions on that issue cannot be brought for five years. Activists have bristled at this change because the official positions can be at odds with public opinion. Additionally, the official positions of the congress aren’t what policymakers use, it’s the public opinion data that’s truly valuable.
“Furthermore, these mystery positions are supposedly going to be held for five years, which to me is almost laughable,” Mueller says. “Five years seems like a radical departure. They’re writing this almost in stone as a way to limit citizen concerns.”
Pitta says that when the DNR is proposing a rule change or legislators are debating a new law, they always ask what the survey results were, never the official position of the congress.
“The congress needs to say what’s more important, the data or protecting our favorite positions,” he says.
“Lawmakers ask questions [about whether a rule change] has statewide support,” he adds.“They never ask for the official position of the congress, they want the statewide vote.”
A DNR spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment for this story. When asked for a copy of the WCC’s list of official positions, the DNR referred the Wisconsin Examiner to the congress’ chair Rob Bohmann and vice-chair Terri Roehrig. Bohmann and Roehrig did not respond to multiple interview requests made by phone and email.
At several recent meetings, WCC members have celebrated an increase in public participation, yet Mueller says if the congress continues down its current path, an important piece of the state’s environmental policy-making apparatus will die.
“I don’t understand how they’ll continue to be relevant if they continue to reduce resolution activity,” she says. “That’s the reason the WCC is in existence. That’s the bottom line.”
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