Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp will leave her post to work for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Stepp, 54, will serve as deputy administrator of EPA Region 7, which covers Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebrasksa and nine tribal nations. 

"Cathy is a strong, trusted reformer who will serve the country well at the EPA," said Gov. Scott Walker in a statement. "As DNR secretary since 2011, she has led an outstanding workforce committed to preserving and promoting our natural resources while placing a strong focus on customer service and common sense. We will miss her optimism and energy at the DNR, and we wish her success in her new role."

Stepp, a former home builder, was appointed by Walker to head the DNR in 2011. She was the first woman to hold the position. Prior to that, she represented the state's 21st Senate District as a Republican from 2003-2007. 

DNR Deputy Secretary Kurt Thiede will serve as interim secretary, Walker's office announced.

Stepp was a vocal critic of the agency before she was appointed to lead it. She brought a business-friendly approach to her tenure at the DNR, and frequently clashed with environmental groups. 

"I can very easily say that Secretary Stepp had the worst record in terms of (the seven DNR secretaries I have known) in terms of protection of the environment," said former DNR Secretary George Meyer, who now serves as head of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

Meyer, whose DNR career spanned three decades, was chosen to head the agency by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. He served as secretary from 1993 to 2001, and has continued to weigh in on conservation issues.

DNR secretaries in Wisconsin have traditionally struck a balance between protecting the state's natural resources while ensuring those protections don't have a negative impact on economic development and job creation, Meyer said, adding that Stepp's policies favored development over natural resource protection.

"As a result of that the environment has suffered under her tenure. That’s not a good legacy to leave behind," he said.

Meyer said he hopes the next person to lead the agency has a "good natural resource management background" and understands that "long-term, to have a strong economy, you must have quality natural resources."

Stepp told lawmakers on the Legislature's budget-writing committee earlier this year that businesses no longer fear the DNR, and instead see the agency as one they can work with as they seek to comply with environmental regulations. 

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Fines for violations of state environmental laws fell 78 percent from 2014 to 2015, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last year. At $306,834, it was the lowest amount since 2006.

The agency works with producers to help move them into compliance when it hears of potential pollution violations, emphasizing a "stepped enforcement process," Stepp said.

"I promise you, we are not turning a blind eye to any of that," Stepp told the Joint Finance Committee. "I think it's good news that the numbers are going down."

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said Stepp's "strong work ethic, business sense and enthusiasm will be a benefit to the EPA in her new position."

"She has made a positive impact on the DNR during her years as secretary by improving customer service, simplifying the permitting process and protecting our precious natural resources," Vos said in a statement.

Stepp told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel earlier this month she was interested in accepting a job with President Donald Trump's administration, if it would offer "a way to bring some of the reforms that we have done in Wisconsin to the national scene." Stepp campaigned for Trump at several Wisconsin rallies during the 2016 election cycle, and told the Wisconsin State Journal earlier this year that she was unaware of some of his environmental positions at the time. 

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.