How Will Wisconsin’s Resources Hold Up Under A Retooled DNR?

Dec 2, 2016

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources provided a glimpse of its realignment this week.

The announcement did not come as a surprise, but surely is raising some eyebrows. Over a year ago, the agency set out to streamline the DNR and make it more customer-friendly.

Change has been afoot at the Wisconsin DNR, since Republicans took control of state government in 2011 and this is the latest iteration.

Last year the Legislature cut the agency’s research team by 31 percent.

Fisheries and wildlife staff have told WUWM in the past that they relied on objective scientists to keep up on the latest research to assist them in making good decisions in the field.

A DNR spokesperson says the agency is retooling its regulatory responsibilities by drawing from expertise in the private sector.

One example would be in monitoring the impact of large dairy operations on water supplies.

Under the new DNR structure, large farms could hire consultants or engineers to draft environmental permits for manure storage and spreading.

DNR staff would still review applications, but the agency anticipates a much speedier process than in the past.

According to a state audit, the DNR has faced huge backlogs when it comes to issuing permits. And when it has checked on compliance, the agency has reported very few violations.

Various conservation and environmental groups say they’re still figuring out what the realignment will mean.

But when it comes to large farm operations, some people have been concerned that the DNR lacks the workforce necessary to monitor the impact on local water supplies.

Managing the waste produced on large dairy operations is among the environmental challenges facing the DNR.
Credit Susan Bence

For instance in Kewaunee County, a number of residents have found their well water contaminated, and they point to nearby farmers who spread manure on their fields during times of year prone to runoff or to groundwater infiltration.

Leaders say the changes will make the agency more efficient and able to accommodate the changing needs of customers and stakeholders, not to mention help the DNR adapt to a constrained fiscal outlook.

When it comes to employees, the DNR says 5 percent of its workforce of about 2,500 will experience the most significant changes.

And seven units will morph into five – for example fish and wildlife will merge with parks.

Nineteen researchers will remain, but rather than working out of the Bureau of Science Services as they have, most will move into the new division of fish, wildlife and parks. A half dozen will be scattered throughout other departments.

The DNR will phase in implementation, rolling out the final adjustments by early 2018.

Secretary Cathy Stepp maintains that an evolved DNR will not mean Wisconsin will weaken its environmental or conservation standards, but just be more efficient in oversight.