The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will take over operations of a popular environmental education center on Jan. 2, broadening its focus to include hunting skills but dropping plans to build a shooting range on the property.
The decision to assign state workers to run the MacKenzie Environmental Center in Poynette, announced Thursday by the state agency, comes on the heels of months of controversy.
The leader of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, the nonprofit group that now runs the center, said the DNR will need to increase spending dramatically if it replaces employees of the nonprofit with more highly paid state workers and if it adds all the hunting programs it has proposed.
“We estimated the additional work that DNR was asking for would cost a million dollars a year,” said federation executive director George Meyer. “Their proposal was clearly very unrealistic.”
The federation has typically raised money for the center — $200,000 in 2012 — to supplement a DNR appropriation, Meyer said, but that fundraising will probably end.
The DNR sought outside organizations to take over MacKenzie, expand it and cover all costs, but only the federation applied, and its proposal lacked the desired programs for recruiting and retaining new hunters, anglers and trappers, said DNR Land Division Administrator Kurt Thiede.
A DNR review committee on Tuesday formally rejected the federation proposal.
While costs for running the center could increase, the amount probably won’t be in the millions, Thiede said. He said the DNR may scale back its plans in order to control costs. In any case, it’s too early to say exactly how many new programs the DNR will offer when it takes over, or how much they will cost, he said.
“We were looking for a more cost-effective way to run MacKenzie, and now we have to look at another way,” Thiede said. “It’s unfortunate. I’m not going to say spending more money isn’t a big deal, (but) we’re definitely going to look for efficiencies in the way we run it.”
The DNR opened the center in the mid-1970s. After the federation took over, it built up programs, in 2012 drawing 16,000 elementary-age students for overnight field trips and classes on topics such as wildlife ecology and adaptation to climate change, Meyer said.
In February, the DNR sparked scores of complaints when it announced it would end its contract with the federation and seek proposals from nonprofit and commercial groups to manage the site, and switch to offering classes on “outdoor skills” — hunting, fishing and trapping. Applicants were to erect a small shooting range and receive no state money.
Agency officials said the change would eliminate the $239,000 cost of contracting with the federation as well as other expenses.
An uproar ensued, prompting the DNR to promise it would continue a robust environmental program along with the new hunter recruitment efforts.
The center remains open. The federation will keep it open for the rest of the year. The DNR has assigned JD Smith, the former education section chief at the agency, to direct the center starting Jan. 2.
“There was a lot of fear about closing the center, and I hope now people can see that was never our intention,” Thiede said.
Under the state’s civil service rules, the seven federation employees at the center will need to apply to keep their jobs. Thiede said their knowledge and experience should make them competitive candidates.
Ruth Ann Lee, McKenzie Center director, said her six employees were shocked Thursday by the DNR decision.
“We have always felt that the curriculum was compatible with hunting and other skills,” Lee said. “The Wisconsin Wildlife Federation is made up of people who hunt and fish and trap and work on conservation. We’ve been teaching about that all along.”
Smith will form a team to evaluate the facility’s needs and seek input from schools on the programs they value, Thiede said.
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. The original version had the incorrect name for the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.]