OZAUKEE PRESS EDITORIAL: A hope for a new day in conservation

The word “legacy” got quite a workout in Wisconsin in December.

Gov. Scott Walker used it often to justify his support for measures passed by the lame-duck Legislature to limit his successor’s power. The legislation was needed to protect his legacy of government reform, he said.

Critics, including some prominent Republicans, warned that Walker’s support for the lame-duck laws would make a power-grab undermining of the authority of a new governor his legacy instead.

Time will tell what form the overall Walker legacy will take, but part of it is already assured: He will be remembered as the governor who took Wisconsin backwards on conservation.

Walker’s eight-year conservation record stands out because it is unprecedented. Past governors, both Republican and Democrat, honored the conservation ethic that is ingrained in the state’s history.

Under Walker, conservation was treated as an inconvenience that hampered business development. Past governors have tried to balance the competing needs of protecting natural resources and encouraging economic development. Walker weighted the scale in favor of business.

Because a strong Department of Natural Resources stood in the way of the anti-conservation agenda, Walker weakened it. His budgets reduced DNR funding by $90 million and shut down the agency’s science bureau. The Walker administration even prohibited DNR staff members from testifying at legislative hearings.

Meanwhile, pollution regulations were eased and wetland protection rules circumvented (a free pass on wetland restrictions was included with the $4.5 billion Foxconn incentive), even as such environmental threats as groundwater contamination by industrial chemical pollutants and runoff pollution that damages lakes and streams (and is responsible for the growing dead zone in Green Bay) worsened.

Walker won election on promises of stimulating job creation and economic growth and was under pressure to deliver. The sacrifice of environmental protection to facilitate development was an easy expedient.

Along the way, political influence gained sway over the DNR as the expertise of its biologists, ecologists and other scientists was ignored, leaving the agency, according to informed observers, including George Meyer, DNR secretary under Gov. Tommy Thompson, marginalized and demoralized.

The nadir of the governor’s relationship with the DNR may have come when, in a revealing display of contempt for the science that underlies much of the agency’s work, his administration ordered language stating the fact that human activities are a cause of climate change deleted from the DNR website.

It is fortunate for Wisconsin that the shackles put on incoming governor Tony Evers by the lame-duck Legislature did not include denying him the power to appoint the DNR secretary. The man he named to the position last week, Preston Cole, promptly announced that he would restore the influence of science in making decisions affecting natural resources.

Cole is a member of the state Natural Resources Board who is so widely respected that even Walker praised the appointment.

The new DNR chief needs all the support he can get. He has big job ahead of him—undoing Walker’s conservation legacy.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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