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Wisconsin's New DNR

The agency wants to improve 'customer' service, but will the environment pay the price?

Jun. 15, 2011
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Run it like a business. Improve customer service. Fast turnaround times.

Those are the guiding concepts in a draft plan
to reorganize the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) into a "charter agency." Dated May 9, 2011, the "Organizational Effectiveness Communication Plan" doesn't define the charter "concept" beyond stressing that the DNR will have "greater operational efficiency."

"Wisconsin is open for business," the draft states, and to this end the DNR's improved efficiency will make it easier than ever for corporations and individuals to get permits to build and run businesses. All of which, the document claims, will spur job creation in Wisconsin without sacrificing environmental standards.

The DNR's proposed reorganization also would strip away the regional power structure currently in place. Instead, all major decisions will be made by the central DNR office in Madison.

The point person behind these changes is Cathy Stepp, Gov. Scott Walker's controversial pick as DNR secretary.

When Walker announced Stepp's appointment, he famously said that he had been looking for a DNR chief who would have a "chamber-of-commerce mentality," indicating precisely how the agency would be run. He got that with Stepp.

Here are Stepp's qualifications: She and her husband, Paul, owned and operated a home construction business in the Racine area for a number of years. Stepp also served from 1998 to 2001 on the Natural Resources Board as an appointee of then-Gov. Tommy Thompson. She was then elected to a single term as a state senator, from 2002 to 2006, before returning to her family business.

Here's what Stepp doesn't bring to the job: experience in natural resources management or environmental law (qualifications possessed by many but not all of her predecessors); experience administering a huge, multifaceted agency; or even a college degree.

The state's environmental community views Stepp and these proposed changes with alarm.

"The fundamental problem here is that you have the fox in charge of the chicken coop," said state Rep. Brett Hulsey (D-Madison), a former Sierra Club official. "The Walker campaign received hundreds of thousands of dollars from polluters. Cathy Stepp is the payback for those contributions."

Environmentalists see Stepp and Walker's "run it like a business" concept as fundamentally wrongheaded.

Former DNR Secretary Scott Hassett noted that the agency is subject to federal environmental rules, with many strings tied to the millions of federal dollars it receives.

"You can't just move that money around," Hassett said. "It comes with tight restrictions."

Anne Sayers, program director for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, is concerned about the lack of public debate over the new DNR.

"We're getting rid of red tape and we're cutting costs at the DNR," Sayers said. "Fine. But how does that affect our ability to manage our forests? What are the costs to our air and water quality? We don't get to have that discussion because it [the charter document] says it will be issued as an executive order by the governor. So public input won't happen, and neither will legislative input. The governor will make all those decisions."

And Cathy Stepp, it appears, will carry out all those decisions, in a most businesslike manner.

Fixing 'Broken Processes'

Multiple attempts were made to interview Stepp over a three-week period; all were unsuccessful. But in other media reports, internal DNR memos and before the Legislature, Stepp has insisted her small-business background will help her turn the DNR into a lean, super-efficient agency focused on customer service.

She told the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee (JFC) on April 4 that she would "streamline our system and fix our broken processes." She also promised to "free up many of our staff members from what I call kind of the chains of their cubicle and being buried under unnecessary paperwork and processes that are not functional to us."

Stepp was a bit more candid about her feelings toward DNR staff on the conservative blog Real Debate, where she wrote in June 2009 that Wisconsin businesses are subject to "crushing" rules enforced by "unelected bureaucrats" who are "anti-development, anti-transportation, and pro-garter snakes, karner blue butterflies, etc...."

In tapping someone with such negative feelings about the DNR to run it, Hulsey said, the governor wants to fundamentally reconfigure the agency until it serves business more than it protects Wisconsin's natural resources. He noted that, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, manufacturing and distributing interests gave Walker's gubernatorial campaign more than $1.3 million, construction interests another $1.1 million.

Others, including George Meyer, have a more positive view of Stepp. Meyer led the DNR from 1993 to 2001, which overlapped with Stepp's term on the Natural Resources Board (NRB).

"Cathy did a very good job on the NRB," said Meyer, now executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. "She was a big supporter of many issues, including conservation education for young people, as well as a number of hunting, fishing and trapping issues."

Meyer and Stepp sometimes disagreed. "She had a strong development and business point of view, but it was not unreasonable," he said. "She is a good person and easy to get along with."

Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, also has kind words, saying he's been "very pleased with the amount of open access we've had to the DNR and her top staff."

But he said he has some concerns about the "charter agency" concept, mostly because it has not been defined.

"Was this the governor's idea? The DNR's?" Hiniker wondered. "I don't know. I'm waiting to find out what a charter agency is. We'll judge that when we hear from them in greater detail."

Jobs At Any Cost?

On Dec. 30, 2010, when she was still the incoming secretary, Stepp laid out her vision for the DNR in a memo to employees.

"Well-managed, sustainable natural resources and a clean environment are important to Wisconsin and fundamental to a strong economy," she wrote. "The governor has identified areas where he would like to see improvement. Briefly, he expects us to work with you, as a team, to look at the agency's permitting processes to find ways to streamline and minimize review times, and he wants to strengthen this agency's focus on customer service."

Stepp added, "As a former home builder, I became aware of Wisconsin's regulatory climate and how it affected small-business owners... I strongly believe job creation and environmental protection can be mutually supportive. As a small-business owner, I understand the importance of customer-friendly relations."

But who, exactly, is the "customer"?

Under the DNR reorganization plan, it seems that the "customer" is the permit requester.

"Our reading [of the charter draft] is that the DNR will be basing employment and retention and pay increases on the number of permits issued," said Sayers of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. "If you read it over, the whole charter document is implying that the 'customer' they keep referring to is not the people of Wisconsin, but instead it is the polluting special interest."

Sayers is concerned that more permits—including more lenient permits—will be issued.

"In effect, it's these polluting special interests that will be judging and measuring how well DNR employees are doing," Sayers said.

Changing the Rules

When Stepp appeared before the JFC in April, she asked that new phosphorus pollution limits be put off for two years. Five years in the making and approved by the Natural Resources Board in 2010, the rule was set to take effect this year.

The rule sets water-quality standards for waterways, and municipalities and industries can't add phosphorus above levels that would degrade those standards. The DNR estimates that adding new filtration technology will cost municipalities between $300 million and $1.13 billion, and industries between $100 million and $460 million.

Phosphorus washes into waterways as runoff from fertilizers and road salts. Papermaking and other industries discharge large amounts of phosphorus, too. Algae blooms in lakes and rivers are a sign of too much phosphorus.

Not only does the algae stink, it can harm aquatic life, decrease water quality and impede water-based recreation like skiing and boating. The DNR currently lists 172 lakes and streams as officially "impaired" because of phosphorus pollution. Milwaukee County waterways listed as impaired at least partially due to phosphorus include Indian and Lincoln creeks; the Kinnickinnic, Menomonee, Milwaukee and Root rivers; and the Root River Canal.

Why hold off on implementing this rule? Stepp and Walker have argued that it's too expensive.

State conservation and environmental groups have uniformly opposed Stepp's request to postpone the new phosphorus limits.

"It's a very important water-quality issue, and we clearly don't think there's any justification to delay implementation of those limits," said the Wildlife Federation's Meyer.

The JFC has declined to take action on the phosphorus rule as part of the budget, suggesting it be taken up as stand-alone legislation. But the committee on May 24 did ask the DNR to "re-create"
a decade-long rule that regulates runoff pollution and give a detailed "economic impact analysis" of the new phosphorus rule and new standards for shoreline development.

Who will do that analysis? Cathy Stepp's DNR.

"This is a ruse to claim Wisconsin can't afford to protect its waters," said Lori Grant, river protection coordinator for the River Alliance. "And [it] is the first step toward overturning these rules as well."


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