The state Department of Natural Resources has been swamped by complaints about the agency’s unexpected announcement this month that it plans to change the focus of the MacKenzie Environmental Center from youth environmental education to training for hunters, anglers and trappers.
As of late Friday afternoon, 45 people had registered to speak about MacKenzie before the Natural Resources Board, which sets policy for the DNR, at its monthly meeting Wednesday in Madison, even though the issue is not on the agenda.
"That’s a lot," said Laurie Ross, board liaison, who handles public comment. Ross said almost all of those speaking are against the DNR plan to change operations at MacKenzie. She also said the office has received more than 300 e-mail comments on the issue, so many that she had to get help from an intern to get through them all.
The center in Poynette draws about 16,000 elementary-age students a year for overnight field trip stays and education in everything from predator-prey relationships to adaptation in the face of climate change.
Earlier this month, the DNR announced it will end its contract with the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, which has operated the center for six years, and seek proposals from nonprofit and commercial groups to
manage the property and run hunting, fishing and trapping education programs. Applicants would have to agree to run the programs without state money and to build a small shooting range for training.
Agency officials said the change would allow them to save the $280,000 annually that it takes to run the center.
George Meyer, executive director of the wildlife federation, immediately challenged the agency’s action.
He criticized the DNR for not developing a plan for the center before seeking proposals and for not involving the public in decision-making about the center’s future.
Meyer said the outpouring of public complaints this week shows the agency should have handled the process differently and that most support an emphasis on environmental education for youth.
"It shows these programs are highly successful," Meyer said. "And that people feel they are getting great value from the experience. ... I’ve talked to teachers who tell me that first-, second- and third-graders can’t wait until they are in the fourth grade because they know that is when they can go to the MacKenzie Center. It’s almost a rite of passage."
Spurred by the public outcry, DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp issued a news release in which she said the agency is not eliminating environmental education at the center and that the curriculum, with an emphasis on outdoor skills training, will be shaped by the outside vendor the DNR selects at the end of a 30-day proposal period.
Terry Kaldhusdal, who teaches fourth grade at Magee Elementary School in Genesee Station, said he spoke with many parents at parent-teacher conferences last week who were angry about the DNR action.
He said everything from the overnight stays to the live animal exhibit, including two wolves, make the experience special.
"MacKenzie offers what no other place offers," Kaldhusdal said. "The kids can play games that teach them about predator-prey relationships. And then they can go stand inches from a wolf. It takes their learning to another whole level."