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Wisconsin's Environment Under Threat

Apr. 18, 2017
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As environmental protections continue to take beatings under the administrations of Scott Walker and Donald Trump, weighing the implications can be overwhelming. Assaults on Wisconsin’s natural resources are coming along many fronts.

George Meyer, former secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and current executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Fund, as well as Amber Meyer Smith, director of programs and government relations at Clean Wisconsin, cite worsening water conditions among Wisconsin’s most troubling environmental ills. 

When it comes to water issues plaguing Wisconsin, we’re fighting upstream and thanks to Walker, have no lifejackets to help us along the way.

Trouble spots can easily be identified. One third of the Kewaunee County wells that provide drinking water do not meet safe standards. Runoff from large farms is polluting waterways around the state; metals may be leaching into groundwater surrounding frac sand mines. Phosphorus pollution, which stimulates algae growth and decimates aquatic ecosystems, is another pervasive problem, as evidenced by a dead zone in Green Bay. Lead pollution is yet another culprit plaguing Wisconsin’s waters.

“These are pretty serious water issues that we need to think about holistically, and we need to think about how we solve them, not how we run away from having to deal with them,” Meyer Smith says. “And unfortunately, it’s been more the latter. It’s been, ‘How do we roll back what exists now?’ and that’s just not the right direction for a state whose identity is water.”

Crippling the DNR

Meyer is careful to point out that these concerns are the outcomes of a department crippled by policy and not of disinvested employees.

“The whole time I was in the agency, and I was working my way up and then when I was secretary, the Department of Natural Resources was viewed by its peer agencies as one of the top five agencies in its classes in the country,” he said. “Now it’s mediocre or less. And that’s not because of the staff—it’s because of the policies that are being carried out.”

Walker’s cuts to the DNR’s budget have meant significant losses of research scientist and educator staffers—and therefore a gutting of expert knowledge from within the department. Startling deficiencies in the DNR’s performance have taken place in recent years as a result.

One such example is the DNR’s failure to ensure that the legislature is equipped with the intelligence needed to make informed decisions regarding environmental protections. 

Meyer highlighted recently proposed legislation that would allow the baiting and feeding of deer, which has been prohibited in order to stymie the spreading of chronic wasting disease. CWD, a neurological disease which deer in 43 counties have tested positive for and is always fatal, is spread by saliva. The DNR didn’t show up to testify on this legislation when it was presented.

“That is a perfect example of why we need to have the DNR do its job,” Meyer says. “That’s what they get paid for. That’s just one example—that has happened 20 times in the last five or six years. And the resource gets hurt when that happens.”

Inadequacies in monitoring agricultural runoff as well as upholding federal water and air pollution regulations have also trickled down from DNR staffing cuts.

State auditors discovered a backlog of permits for large farms in 2016, and in 2014, the EPA had to force the DNR to adopt clean air regulations that it should have already been abiding by. The EPA cited 75 deficiencies in the DNR’s water regulation in 2011.

Meyer contrasted these rampant shortcomings with his own tenure within the DNR, during which he said the EPA’s enforcement was requested only one time.

“This is unprecedented,” he said. “It’s an oversight of responsibility.”

What’s worse, Meyer pointed out, is the EPA’s weakened capability to fulfill a watchdog role as it readies for leadership under someone it had to defend itself against in court (EPA chief Scott Pruitt has sued the EPA 13 times), and a proposed 31% funding cut—the largest cut to any one entity proposed in Trump’s budget.

“Now we’re not going to have that shield, that ability for someone to come in and force the DNR to do what it should,” he said.

The DNR’s cherished Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine and state parks have also taken hits under Walker. A reorganization of the DNR has been much talked about since proposed as an idea by Republican State Assemblyman Adam Jarchow in October 2016, but went unmentioned in Walker’s latest budget, signifying that proposition may go unpursued.

As far as the purging of the DNR’s magazine, many are at a loss regarding the motive. The publication serves as an effective means to inform the public more deeply on issues under the DNR’s jurisdiction, and provide explanations as to the DNR’s actions and decisions. Authored largely by employees, the magazine is published at no cost to the DNR and has served more than 80,000 subscribers.

“Any successful business tells people what their services and products are,” Meyer said. “That’s what the DNR basically does, they have products and services in the natural resource and conservation areas. And they didn’t consider that part of their core business.”

State parks were defunded by Walker in 2015, leaving them to rely entirely on fees paid by visitors. Walker’s latest budget proposes increases to user fees. Meyer warns that continually rising user fees will mean decreased access to parks for low-income families.

He also expressed concern regarding the DNR’s ability to function efficiently should it see a reorganization, which could mean responsibilities disseminated into five separate offices. “All these programs need to coordinate on a daily basis,” Meyer noted. “It would cost more because you’d have more top people getting high salaries because you’ve got more agencies…water and fish go together—those people should be talking to each other.”

Trumping the EPA

Trump’s attacks on the EPA could be just as unforgiving, if not more so. The executive order Trump signed March 28 essentially carves a path to strip consideration of environmental health in any governmental decision-making, a measure that had been woven into policymaking under the Obama administration.

Greg Nemet, associate professor at the La Follette School of Public Affairs and Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, highlights five key proposed actions to watch.

Trump has proposed reviews of vehicle efficiency standards, the Clean Power Plan, methane regulations and coal leasing. Additionally, Trump wants to reassess the economic impact of one ton of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, which helps shape greenhouse gas regulations.

“That’s five activities that they haven’t said they’re going to reverse, but they’ve said they’re going to review, and if they did reverse them, that’s going in the opposite direction of what we need to do,” Nemet said. “We need more stringent vehicle efficiency standards, we need more efficient power plants and more low-carbon power plants, and we need to reduce methane leakage.

“Those cuts that have been proposed would be devastating to the EPA,” he continued. “Congress eventually comes up with its own budget and approves its own budget. From what I can tell, it doesn’t seem like Congress really wants what’s called the ‘skinny budget’ that’s been proposed so far.”

What about that little agreement the U.S. entered into along with 194 other nations to commit to deterring climate change? While exiting the Paris Agreement would require jumping through hoops, Nemet points out that a more likely route for the Trump administration may be to simply not live up to the promises made.

The ramifications? “You would start to wonder if other countries would continue their efforts,” Nemet said. “I think that’s the biggest danger.”

Another drastic measure proposed is a 97% cut to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). Favored on both sides of the aisle, the GLRI is responsible for the majority of protections and restorations of the Great Lakes.

“This is really sort of a no-brainer of a program that has been proposed for elimination,” Meyer Smith said of the GLRI. “That is pretty shocking, that such a popular bipartisan program could be under attack like that. It definitely makes you question where our priorities are.”

Meyer Smith also questions Trump’s reasoning with regard to energy, and his affinity for coal. “When you look at the facts on energy sources like coal, they just don’t add up,” she said. “It’s a dying industry, the jobs aren’t there anymore, but there seems to be this need to cling to it for some reason.”

Meyer, Meyer Smith and Nemet all agree that if this widespread lack of respect for science and for the environment continues, we’ll all pay the price. Nemet noted the health impacts of heat waves induced by climate change, and outlined the upsides of clean energy. “When we decarbonize, we get benefits, like less asthma and respiratory disease, which is one of the aspects of the Clean Power Plan,” he said. 

Meyer Smith offered a laundry list of consequences should we continue down the path of negligence toward science and environmental protections: “We’ll jeopardize one of our core economic drivers of tourism—because clean water is so integral… We’ll continue to lose the potential for job creation in terms of the burgeoning new economies like the clean energy economy. We’ll jeopardize our citizens’ health. These cuts—especially to EPA—are going to be really devastating for some of the health-related programs. Not to mention the health impacts of climate change and air pollution that are going to continue to grow and they’re going to end up costing us money, a lot of money, in the long run in terms of healthcare costs.”

Meyer Smith emphasized the need for investing in the prioritization of natural resources “We need to make investments in the scientists, the people that we entrust to enforce laws, we need to make investments in protecting clean water, preventing pollution in the first place,” she said. “We need to really prioritize our natural resources for the economic benefits and health benefits they bring—not treat them as commodity.”


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