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.