Environmentalists Balk at Plan to Split Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Dec 22, 2016

The idea has arisen again of breaking up the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Supporters believe placing its functions in different agencies would make things run more efficiently. Gov. Walker indicated this week that he thinks the proposal has merit. Some environmentalists worry the plan would have disastrous effects.

The idea is to basically divide the Department of Natural Resources into two separate agencies. The latest proposal comes from Republican state Rep. Adam Jarchow of Balsam Lake.

“We’re proposing that we have a fish and wildlife agency that manages and promotes the sports of hunting and fishing and then a separate agency that does environmental protection. Then we’ve also proposed that the forestry function operate more like it does federally and would move to the Department of Agriculture,” Jarchow says.

Jarchow says when it comes to the parks, the tourism department would manage them while the Department of Administration would address legal matters. He thinks his plan would allow things to run more smoothly and says natural resources is the number one issue for his constituents.

“That’s because the department in northern Wisconsin touches so many facets of our everyday lives, from air and water permitting to farms to deer herd management and almost universally the comments are critical of something that’s going on at the department. So, I promised when I ran for re-election that I would introduce some big bold reforms to the department to see if we could get it to work better,” he says.

Jarchow says Wisconsin is one of only a handful of states that still have what he calls a super agency managing its natural resources.

One person critical of the idea is former DNR Secretary George Meyer. He currently heads the state’s largest conservation group, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. Meyer believes it’s necessary for the different programs in the DNR to work closely together.

“It’s important for fish managers to be working with our water quality people, now they would be working in two different agencies. It makes it very difficult if not impossible to effectively manage our natural resources. It just makes for more bureaucracy for our citizens,” he says.

Meyer also fears the environment would suffer under the plan and doesn’t think the different agencies would have the kind of oversight that’s available now.

For decades, people have been taking their concerns to the DNR Board.

“At least you have something that’s been used by citizens for more than 70 years and that’s a citizens board to go to that can hold that agency accountable if they’re not protecting your groundwater, like in Kewaunee County or with pollution problems in other counties from agricultural or industrial pollution,” Meyer says.

But, despite support from Gov. Walker this week, Meyer doubts it’s a done deal. He notes the governor has also indicated that a reorganization plan the DNR rolled out last month deserves a look. That proposal includes turning over certain tasks, such as permit writing duties, to private companies.

A spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources declined to comment.