Tim Michels (Scott Olson | Getty Images)
Republican candidate for governor Tim Michels set his sights on the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Tuesday, suggesting the agency should be broken up to better serve what he sees as the agency’s customers: businesses and hunters.
“It’s not my opinion that the DNR is broken,” Michels said in a talk to members of the lakeside Milwaukee Rotary Club. “It’s what I hear everywhere I go from Superior, to Kenosha, to Sheboygan, to La Crosse.”
Michels suggested that “the people at the DNR need to be recalibrated.” He depicted the department’s role as serving “businesses, people that pay taxes, people that want to expand their business,” along with hunters. “Businesses are trying to expand and are waiting on a water permit or something like that,” said Michels. Meanwhile, some hunters he’s talked to “don’t feel like the DNR has their back right now, they feel like the DNR is out to get them,” he added.
“If we have to, maybe we break the DNR up into two parts, one that services the business side, one that services the hunter side, sportsman side,” Michels said. He steered clear of details, however. “I don’t have the answers on that today,” he said. “I will sit down with the smart people and we’ll figure that out.”
Michels’ brief remarks on the DNR came in response to a written question submitted by a member of the audience, as were other comments he made during the 30-minute session. There were no follow-up questions, and his statement included no reference to the number of environmental controversies that the department has been managing over the last four years.
Those include a 2021 wolf-hunting season that the department authorized under a court order after a lawsuit by an out-of-state hunting group. The hunt took place over the opposition of native tribes, conservationists and biologists who objected because the gray wolf had only just returned to Wisconsin and because the hunt took place during the breeding season. The hunt exceeded the DNR’s quota for 200 wolves and recent analysis by the agency found that Wisconsin’s wolf population dropped by 14%.
Water quality has also been a key issue throughout the state, with pollution or contamination often traced to private industry, such as nitrate contamination due to manure from large scale cattle and livestock operations. An analysis by the Environmental Working Group and Clean Wisconsin found that direct medical costs in Wisconsin linked to nitrate-contaminated drinking water range from $24 million to $80 million per year. Advocates have also been calling for stricter controls and cleanup for so-called “forever chemicals” like PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) across the state.
Clean Wisconsin President and CEO Mark Redsten called Michels’ suggestion “a reckless and bad idea” in a statement to Wisconsin Examiner. “This plan to break up DNR intentionally ignores science and the interconnectedness of natural resource decisions,” Redsten said. “When we are facing complex topics like climate change and drinking water pollution, it’s particularly insane and dangerous.”
Jennifer Giegerich, government affairs director for Wisconsin Conservation Voters, recalled that former Gov. Scott Walker made a similar proposal. “This is a terrible idea from Tim Michels and it will meet the same swift resistance that Scott Walker received when he proposed the idea of splitting up DNR,” she told Wisconsin Examiner. “You can not divide an agency to cater to specific groups when the obligations to protect our water, air and land are intertwined and often tied to federal obligations like the Clean Water Act.”
Clean Wisconsin water program director Scott Laeser rejected Michels’ description of the DNR’s mission.
“The tens of thousands of families who cannot drink the water from their taps because of agricultural and industrial pollution would strongly disagree with this characterization of the DNR’s ‘customers,’” Laeser said. “The DNR serves every person in Wisconsin equally, and its job is to protect and manage our natural resources, not facilitate their exploitation.”
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