Wisconsin Conservation Congress survey sees lowest participation since 2019
The Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest near Boulder Junction includes stands of mature conifers. (Jonathan Kult | Wisconsin DNR)
The Wisconsin Conservation Congress’ annual spring survey saw its lowest participation since 2019, which was the first year participants could cast votes online.
According to the survey results released earlier this month, more than 11,500 people responded to the questionnaire, which was available April 10-13. The conservation congress’ annual survey plays an important role in helping the state’s environmental policymakers at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), on the Natural Resources Board and in the Legislature understand where the public stands on important questions regarding conservation policy.
The 2020 spring hearings saw an unprecedented level of participation from the public after the COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of in-person hearings. The fully virtual option drew a record-breaking 64,943 responses as much of the state remained at home under a statewide health order.
While the 2020 results remain an outlier, the 2021 survey drew more than 12,000 responses and last year’s survey had more than 28,000 responses.
This year’s participation barely surpassed the 10,712 participants in the 2019 survey. The low turnout came after members of the congress, who are elected to represent each of the state’s 72 counties, had searched for ways to keep participation high while undercutting public input into the process.
Concerned by the ability for people to use the internet to quickly build momentum, the congress’ leadership axed a rule that allowed residents to bypass the regular process for getting questions onto the survey.
Typically, a question had to be approved by one of the congress’ policy committees. If a question was blocked, however, residents could force a question onto the survey if it passed at the county level in three counties, two years in a row. This method was regularly used by conservation-minded residents seeking a way around the pro-hunting voices that hold control of the body.
The congress’ leadership had warned that internet voting made it too easy for a question to clear the 3-county, 2-year threshold.
Wildlife advocate Amy Mueller says the drop wasn’t entirely because of the rule changes though, pointing out that the week of the survey was the first time the weather had gotten nice for much of the state.
“I think the weather was certainly a factor — it was a week of summer for much of the state,” she says. “So spending 30-40 minutes doing an online survey fell down on the priority list. Plus trying to find 45 minutes to complete the survey mid-week is tough for many people.”
But, she adds that frustration with the process and the move away from traditional in-person meetings could have played a part.
“Lastly, there are certainly a lot of folks that are frustrated with the whole process or would prefer it go back to in-person meetings, so likely did not participate to make a statement,” she says.
The congress’ chair, Racine resident Rob Bohmann, said in an email the drop in participation could have been a lack of high-profile questions on the ballot this year. Last year, which saw the second-highest participation ever, included a question about wolf hunting — a controversial topic in the state that draws many different points of view.
Kari Lee-Zimmerman, a spokesperson for the congress, said in an email she agrees that the level of engagement on the questions may have dipped.
“We typically see the input on spring hearing fluctuate from year to year based on the questions being asked, so when there are questions about topics that people feel particularly passionate about, we generally see higher input,” she said. “This year’s questions may not have risen to the level of engaging those people who generally only participate when there is a specific or activating topic on the questionnaire.
She also said the DNR had recently sent a number of surveys this spring, possibly producing “an element of ‘survey fatigue’” among previous conference participants.
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