PRESS EDITORIAL: Toxic politics contaminate state resources

The toxicity of Wisconsin politics has become so much the norm that it hardly stirs disgust any more. But there is a limit. When the poison spreads to the state’s historic commitment to conserving its precious natural resources, it crosses a line that should provoke public outrage.

The state Supreme Court and the Legislature’s Republican majority are complicit in crossing that line by thwarting the democratic process of choosing members of the Natural Resources Board.

The majority leaders of the Legislature contrived to prevent the NRB member appointed by Gov. Tony Evers from taking office by refusing to hold a confirmation hearing. Last week, the Supreme Court endorsed the tactic.

The result is that Frederick Prehn, who refused to leave the board when his six-year term expired in May 2021, remains a voting member of the board and pledges to stay for as long as majority leaders of the Legislature prevent confirmation of his successor.

It’s not that the majority leaders are refusing to hold a confirmation hearing to avoid actually going to work in the Capitol building, though this Legislature is infamous for taking long, taxpayer-paid vacations from performing its legislative duties. Rather, it’s a cynical ploy to deny the Democratic governor elected by a majority of Wisconsin voters his statutory right to appoint members to the board that sets policy for the DNR. 

The transparent motivation for blocking the governor’s appointment is to keep control of the NRB in the hands of members appointed by Gov. Scott Walker.

The Evers appointee who should  have been able to take her seat on the board more than a year ago, Sandra Dee Naas, is well qualified to replace Prehn, a dentist and cranberry marsh owner from Wausau. Naas, of Ashland, is a natural resources scientist and teacher with 30 years of experience in the conservation field.

It would be bad enough if the disruption of the appointment process were merely a political game played to score points against a governor from an opposing party, but it is worse than that because it has consequences for the water, wildlife and land for which the NRB is a steward.

Prehn was a key influence in the board’s failure this year to establish rules for groundwater contaminated by so-called forever chemicals (PFAS) released into water by industrial operations. He dismissed scientific reports from the Department of Health Services and the DNR, and went so far as to chastise the mayor of his hometown for causing “hysteria” by announcing that tests of the water from the City of Wausau’s six wells had revealed PFAS levels above the state advisory level for safe drinking water.

Investigative news stories have reported on communications between Prehn and lobbyists for industries affected by DNR regulation.

The bald-faced political interference in the NRB is a perversion of the ideal of citizen involvement in natural resources management that the board is supposed to represent. The board grew out of the conservation commission founded by legendary Wisconsin conservationist Aldo Leopold and others in 1927 to guard against the political abuse of state resources.

Nearly a century later, the concept of citizen involvement in conservation remains strong among the Wisconsin public, if not with the political powers that be. Thousands of citizens participate in annual county meetings of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress. This year, by margins ranging from 82% to 97%, delegates voted to approve a resolution to “clarify that NRB membership ends immediately after a member’s term expires.” The resolution also requires the Legislature to hold confirmation hearings for NRB appointees within 90 days of their appointment.

Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Dallet spoke eloquently for those citizens in her opinion dissenting from the controversial 4-3 high court ruling that blessed the political shenanigans affecting the NRB:

“One unelected official should not be able to dictate his term of office over the will of the people’s elected representative. This cannot be right, if for no other reason than it leads to the absurd result that Prehn’s expired six-year term has somehow transformed into life tenure.”

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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.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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