DNR reorganization

In this video still from a Thursday meeting in Madison, a state Department of Natural Resources employee asks an agency political appointee how a pending reorganization will help flagging department morale.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

The state Department of Natural Resources is considering streamlining its regulatory efforts by giving less scrutiny to some kinds of pollution and by relying on businesses to draft their own pollution permits subject to agency review.

At a meeting with employees last week, top administrators said any changes in state air and water protections would necessarily meet standards spelled out in federal laws.

No final decisions have been made, but the DNR expects to meet a June deadline for completing a reorganization plan demanded by elected officials, agency deputy secretary Kurt Thiede told employees at a videotaped teleconference last week.

“We basically made commitments to ourselves and to a number of decision-makers who have been watching us very closely, saying, ‘Give us a year, give a year to determine what we are going to do, what we are going to look like and how we are going to be aligned,’ ” Thiede said at the meeting.

Thiede was responding to an employee who asked why the reorganization plan must be done June 30.

“This is the kind of thing where if we said we needed two or three years, I don’t think we would be given the deference to kind of be controlling our own direction right now,” Thiede said.

Thiede didn’t elaborate, but Republicans who control state government have been highly critical of the DNR, saying it has been too zealous in enforcing environmental protections. Several bills rolling back agency authority are on their way to Gov. Scott Walker’s desk now.

Republicans who took power in 2011 have already enacted several laws reducing regulations, including one that led to more elimination of wetlands.

Walker and GOP lawmakers have extended a two-decades-long bipartisan reduction of DNR staff. Last year they cut nearly 100 positions, including educators, foresters, water quality experts and most of the senior scientists in the Bureau of Science Services, which had drawn fire from Republicans over research it compiled on mine hazards. Walker has said he wants the department to focus on an unspecified core mission.

Walker, who appointed Thiede and department secretary Cathy Stepp, campaigned for his first term in 2010 on a platform that included criticism of the department as too slow to issue pollution permits and too tough in its enforcement efforts. Lawmakers and business lobbyists have renewed similar complaints recently.

“Anything we do in this process we’ll still have to have a system of accountability, checks and balances,” Walker told reporters Wednesday. “I believe there needs to be a balance between a strong, safe and healthy economy and a strong, safe and healthy environment.”

The department reorganization effort began last summer. DNR officials said last week that items being studied were too preliminary for public release, but the Wisconsin State Journal obtained access to a summary of proposals and a video the department recorded at the Thursday meeting with employees.

When workers asked Thiede how the department would address morale problems, he said a benefit of the reorganization may be to reduce the workload of a full-time workforce that shrank by more than 15 percent from 1995 to 2015.

But a former DNR secretary, George Meyer, said agency staff has always been overworked, and that employees have told him morale has hit a new low now because they aren’t allowed to do their jobs.

“It’s the political influence, and that they don’t have the support of leadership when they have to make tough decisions,” said Meyer, who is now the executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

Thiede and Stepp have gathered information from natural resources and environmental protection agencies in 11 states that are saving time and money through steps such as eliminating tasks and entire categories of work that weren’t providing results.

A memorandum produced by the DNR said:

  • Arizona legislators lauded the state’s environmental quality department after it reduced permit costs by 40 percent and turnaround time for issuance by 60 percent.
  • Iowa sped up air pollution permits, typically issuing them in a week, down from 60-90 days; and cut tax expenditures to $12.8 million from $22 million in 2008.
  • Tennessee mandated employee job-performance plans and a new pay system.

Many ideas under consideration in Wisconsin were done in the other states, including increased use of electronic records, officials said.

“The overall goal of the alignment effort is to utilize our resources in the most efficient manner while fulfilling our mission to protect and enhance our natural resources and provide a healthy, sustainable environment,” spokesman George Althoff said.

Leaders of businesses, local governments and other groups have been providing advice to Stepp. The next steps are for DNR employees and other groups to make suggestions as administrators work on a final list.

Among the ideas under consideration is a pilot effort requiring certain air polluters to shoulder more permit-drafting duties. It could be applied to other programs, Mark Aquino, director of business and science, told employees.

Top administrators also want to create less-stringent general pollution permit programs for additional areas, Aquino said.

The DNR has been challenged in court repeatedly over allegations that lax permits have led to tainted drinking water and dried up lakes and streams. The agency is seeking to address 75 deficiencies in enforcement of clean water laws listed in a 2011 letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In the reorganization, the DNR is also considering unspecified changes in drinking water regulation, a shift of resources to up-front outreach and assistance for developers who want to build on wetlands, and an effort to seek other state entities to take over DNR efforts to improve tree genetics and licensing of recreational vehicles.

Also under consideration are ways to expand camping at popular parks, combine wildlife programs, evaluate Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine and other print products, and speed rulemaking and economic impact studies that have consumed growing staff time since laws were changed in recent years.

State Journal reporter Matthew DeFour contributed to this report.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.