An Earth Day Gift for Wisconsin: The Natural Resources Board

The beauty and richness of our natural resources in Wisconsin is one of the things that those of us who live here love about the state. And we like to brag about what we believe is Wisconsin’s long history of citizen input into the management of these resources. We think this sets us apart, and makes us sort of special.

Thus, one of the things that the conservation community in Wisconsin is celebrating today, Earth Day 2015, is the preservation of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Board. It’s a 7-member board of citizens, geographically and professionally diverse, that meets throughout the year, and makes rules and sets policies that help carry out the laws that affect our natural resources. All are volunteers, appointed by the governor and approved by the state senate.

Wisconsin River - photo at Flickr (Used with permission.)

Wisconsin River. (Photo by Jimmy Emerson Used with permission.)

We have a special reason to celebrate it this year. Why? Because since early February the board’s future has been under a cloud – the threat of being rendered powerless by a provision in Governor Scott Walker’s 2015-17 budget proposal. The governor’s proposal called for declaring the board “advisory only” and transferring all the powers exercised by the citizen board to a single person – the governor’s appointed DNR Secretary. The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters called it “Kneecapping the Department of Natural Resources Board,” and urged its members to press their elected representatives at Conservation Lobby Day (held last week) to reject it.

WLCV members were gratified that many Republicans in the legislature (the governor’s own party) seemed not to like much about the proposal either. In one of its first official acts on the budget the Joint Finance Committee did, in fact, remove that item from the budget bill, calling it a “policy” proposal, not a “fiscal” matter. So the citizen-led board and its citizen-oversight role remains safe for now, and Happy Earth Day!

The Van Hise Rock near Baraboo, WI.  (Photo by Jimmy Emerson, used with permission)

The Van Hise Rock near Baraboo, WI. (Photo by Jimmy Emerson, used with permission)

I wanted to know a little more about how the board works and talked briefly with one of its members, Christine Thomas, who is the Dean of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. Dean Thomas explained to me that often new “laws are broad, sometimes very general – maybe as general as ‘we must have clean water’ – well in implementing them we have the rule-making authority to say what ‘clean’ is, and to say how this gets done.”

Earlier the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quoted her extensively on the board’s citizen oversight function. In part, she said the board includes “. . the only people who can stand up for the resource with no tie to money, contributions, gifts, or election. And every decision has to be made in full view of the public.”

Photo by Jimmy Emerson; used with permission.

Photo by Jimmy Emerson; used with permission.

I also wanted to learn more about “Wisconsin’s long history of citizen input” and share that here. Again, I turned to Dean Thomas. She put together a PowerPoint presentation on just this topic and shared it with the other members of the Natural Resources Board in February this year, and you can access it too, at this DNR web page. This is a spirited presentation with some history that goes back to the beginning of the state. It also becomes a discussion of political changes and reorganizations – “as inescapable as death and taxes,” she says – and an explanation of the board at work today. And it’s fun to watch.

You can also read, if you wish for more in-depth history, Dean Thomas’ written narrative, “One Hundred Twenty Years of Citizen Involvement With the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board,” which appeared in the Environmental History Review in the Spring, 1991 issue. She makes a compelling case that citizen involvement has been part of our history – for 150 years, she now contends. She says we are “a state, that more than most, has a long history of environmental interest. . . . The environmental problems have become more complicated and the interest groups more diverse, but the idea of the citizen board has remained intact for most of the state’s history.”


Editorial Note: This is Part 1 of an Earth Day-inspired series which will include a report about the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, (also a target of dramatic changes proposed in the governor’s budget), and this will be followed by a look at the environmental inheritance that all in Wisconsin have received from Aldo Leopold, our very own 20th century patron saint for natural resources.

News briefs: The conservation edition

Look here, at the end of every week, for a collection of short news items and links to stories, events, and issues regarding Wisconsin’s whooping cranes, conservation issues, get-outdoors opportunities, and, perhaps other nature-based happenings.

It’s Earth Day Everyday !

How many times did you hear that phrase on Tuesday, April 22nd? A reminder that Earth Day shouldn’t be limited to just one day a year? Perhaps that idea’s catching on; there are a number of Earth Day activities (rounded up by the Green Bay Press Gazette) continuing near me this weekend. And the International Crane Foundation is celebrating “Party for the Planet” on Saturday (an initiative of the American Zoological Association). ICF is involved in several other weekend observances of Earth Day, as you can see via that link above, to its calendar. What’s happening where you are?

Sand Mining: Wisconsin’s new conservation issue 

In Wisconsin, sand mining is a new addition to the well-known list of conservation issues (water, air, land, energy and climate issues). Wisconsinites, like people everywhere, want and need more jobs, and the state has added some by mining Wisconsin’s plentiful sand and selling it to the hydrofracking industry.

A map of Wisconsin's counties. The counties most impacted by sand mining, including Monroe, Tremplelau, Pepin, and Chippewa, are on the western edge of the state. (from Wikimedia Commons)

A map of Wisconsin’s counties; those most impacted by sand mining, including, Monroe, Trempealeau, Pepin, and Chippewa, are on the western edge of the state. (from Wikimedia Commons)

Unsurprisingly, though, new jobs that involve mining and selling the state’s natural resources, come with some built-in conflicts. This article in The Great Lakes Echo takes a good look at how sand mining is “reshaping the resident’s lives” – in ways positive and not-so – in four counties in western Wisconsin: Monroe, Trempealeau, Pepin, and Chippewa.

I called the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters for some more input on the growth of sand mining in Wisconsin, and learned this: In the last five years, “Wisconsin frac sand facilities have grown from less than a handful to more than 100.” The group’s Executive Director, Kerry Schumann, and Field Director Tom Stolp, made a fact-finding, photographing tour of some of the sand mining areas in September 2013.

A stockpile of Great Northern Sand arises on a Wisconsin prairie along Highway 53. (Photo courtesy Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters)

A stockpile of Great Northern Sand arises on a Wisconsin prairie along Highway 53. (Photo courtesy Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters)


One Man and 673 State Natural Areas

Fortunately, Wisconsin still has more State Natural Areas than most people will experience in their lifetimes. Have you visited any State Natural Areas?  Do you have a favorite?  If so, you’re sure to enjoy this link to an article at the Journal Sentinel Online about a contemporary explorer of Wisconsin, and his quest to visit each and every one of Wisconsin’s designated State Natural Areas. Does that sound difficult? It is! And even more so than you might realize, as the article explains. One DNR employee, conservation biologist Randy Hoffman, has done it as part of his job, and it’s taken him nearly 30 years to complete the assignment.

But this story belongs to Joshua Mayer, a research associate at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine, who has been pursuing a personal quest, since 2009, when a few nature hikes with a new camera led to bigger thinking. “I got a few under my belt, and I thought I might make this a little project,” Mayer told J-S writer Lee Bergquist.

The view from Observatory Hill in Marquette County. Photo by Joshua Mayer who is visiting and photographing all of Wisconsin's hundreds of State Natural Areas.

The view from Observatory Hill in Marquette County. Photo by Joshua Mayer who is visiting and photographing all of Wisconsin’s hundreds of State Natural Areas.

To date he has visited 337 of the natural areas, and has posted over 10,000 photos, documenting these excursions, at Flickr! Here (above) is one of them, showcasing the view from Observatory Hill which is in John Muir Country in Marquette County

Get Outdoors and Enjoy Yourself !

Here’s one more way: Grab a pair of binoculars and head outside for some birding. Are you a rookie birder? Would you like to be one? Read this, and you can soon be on your way. Andy Paulious, a DNR wildlife biologist, offered these birdwatching tips and suggestions on Wisconsin Public Radio earlier this month.












The Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin and the Promise of Earth Day

In honor of Earth Day I want to write a post focusing on a particular Wisconsin gem, our Natural Resources Foundation. I know many Wisconsinites who are unaware of it, so this seems a good day to try and spread the word and appreciate what it has accomplished for the state since it came to be in 1986.

First, though, I also want to share some nuggets of Earth Day news found around the internet today. Maybe some Gannett papers in Wisconsin are carrying this also, but I found it online at The Tennessean: this nice story about our own Gaylord Nelson, and the beginnings of Earth Day, featuring this stirring quote:  “The battle to restore a proper relationship between man and his environment . . . will require a long, sustained political, moral, ethical and financial commitment far beyond any commitment ever made . . . in the history of man.”

Happening this week in Washington: “Cowboys and Indians Ride on D.C.” – an alliance of “native peoples, farmers, and ranchers” are united in protesting the Keystone pipeline.

A Wikimedia Commons photo of a base mine and tailings pond in the Alberta tarsands region where the Keystone pipeline begins.

A Wikimedia Commons photo of a base mine and tailings pond in the Alberta tarsands region where the Keystone pipeline begins.

Finally, lest we become completely overwhelmed by environmental challenges that seem never-ending “5 environmental wins to celebrate” at the Christian Science Monitor is a good reminder that over time some of the challenges have been successfully met.

But, back to Wisconsin: compared to Earth Day, now 44 years old, the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin is still a youngster. It is  working to address the pressing needs that Nelson articulated. When the Natural Resources Foundation was formed in 1986, declining budgets were compromising “critical programs of the Wisconsin DNR,” and the NRF was formed to recruit members and donors, and to boost “private sector investment and involvement in state-managed natural resources.”

Since then it has developed an active membership of more than 4,000 citizens that support the mission. It has contributed $4.6 million to public and private conservation efforts, and has also created the Wisconsin Conservation Endowment which currently includes 62 funds and $3.5 million in assets that permanently support specific lands, programs, and species. Our endangered whooping cranes are one of the species to benefit.

Fish Creek, in Door County, Wisconsin (A "Badger & Whooping Crane" photo)

Fish Creek, in Door County, Wisconsin (A “Badger & Whooping Crane” photo)

Impressive as all that is, when it comes to the “relationship between man and his environment”, Wisconsin’s NRF probably does that best through it’s dozens and dozens of annual field trips. These have gotten at least 28,000 people outdoors and into Wisconsin’s very best environments – into the State Natural Areas and parks, and in touch with its lands, waters, marshes, and wildlife.

These field trips are led by DNR professionals with other experts with a love and knowledge of the places they will lead you to. Have a look at this comprehensive list of field trips that are being sponsored by NRF from now through November. But look quick, because they’re filling up fast!