Environmental education

Some conservationists say the DNR isn't honoring its legal mandate to deliver environmental education. Above, students from Merrimac Community Charter School visit Devil's Lake State Park.

Jenna McCann

The political pressure and budget cuts that dismantled the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources science research bureau are also taking a toll on the agency’s ability to engage the public in conservation.

Under Gov. Scott Walker, the DNR has reduced environmental education efforts despite state law and department regulations mandating an active effort to ensure that citizens understand natural resources topics.

“It just seems like they are getting out of the business of educating people about our natural resources, which seems strange to us,” said Betsy Parker, of the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education, a nonprofit whose 400 members work in parks and outdoors centers.

“If you want people to be involved as stewards of natural resources, you have to help get them engaged, so they can make informed decisions on how we manage our lands and preserve resources for the future,” said Parker, a Madison resident who is the group’s advocacy chairwoman.

But DNR spokesman Jim Dick said department leaders take their public education duties seriously.

“We are not concerned that strategically adjusting the way we direct public outreach will lessen the public’s understanding of our natural resources,” Dick said. “In fact, we may be able to reach more people.”

The changes are outgrowths of a major DNR reorganization announced in November that is also altering the department’s use of science, law enforcement in parks and pollution enforcement.

DNR secretary Cathy Stepp and other top administrators appointed by Walker have said elected officials demanded the agency shed unnecessary programs.

This was on the heels of 2015 budget cuts the Republican governor and lawmakers enacted, eliminating $34 million and 93 full-time positions while saying the department did unneeded work on climate change, mine pollution and wildlife management.

The 2015-17 budget included removal of 11 full-time DNR educator positions, and other changes resulting in a volunteer group supplying funding for most part-time parks naturalists.

The cuts also eliminated DNR forester positions two years after a DNR assessment found that its forestry education and outreach efforts had strengths but lacked staff and money to be consistent and effective.

In the 2017-19 budget, Walker proposed eliminating the department’s 88,000-circulation subscriber-supported Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine. Constituents howled and said the publication was crucial for rallying the public to conservation efforts, so lawmakers may just reduce the number of issues the magazine publishes.

This summer, the DNR announced it was sharply scaling back its presence at the 11-day state fair. For decades, hundreds of agency employees have promoted conservation and outdoor recreation with thousands of children and adults who passed through a 2-acre Natural Resources Park.

“The reason I got was ‘We’re going to go back to our core mission,’” said Doug Hoskins, a retired DNR conservation warden who has helped coordinate the fair effort since 2000. “I always thought that was part of our job, meeting the public.”

Hoskins said it’s an extension of Stepp’s practice of forbidding staff from publicly commenting on pending legislation — the administration doesn’t want knowledgeable DNR staff talking to the public about pollution problems or laws allowing high-capacity wells near vulnerable lakes and streams.

When members of the public deluged the DNR with complaints about its removal of factual information about the human causes of climate change from its website in December, department employees expressed frustration about how they should defend the decision.

A week or so later, the DNR told the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education to stop distributing the department’s climate change activity guide to school teachers. An unknown number of the 86-page, full-color booklets were recycled.

The department said the booklets were out of date, but it hasn’t responded when asked if information about the human causes of climate change was what they considered outdated.

Refocusing education

DNR spokesman Dick said the department is allowing employees to focus on their main duties while using new and old ways to reach the public.

The department has had more than a million views on its YouTube channel, 18,800 Twitter followers, and 93,603 followers on Facebook, Dick said.

The DNR continues to host popular learn-to-fish and beginning archery events at Devil’s Lake State Park and an outdoor heritage event at the MacKenzie Center near Poynette, and it opened new interactive displays in 2015 at Horicon Marsh, Dick said.

The DNR will continue to send representatives to hunting and fishing shows “that will allow us to strategically deliver our message of conservation and preservation of our natural resources,” Dick said.

Dick also touted the department’s partnership with volunteers in providing naturalists in state parks.

As funding for park naturalists has ebbed, local Friends of the State Parks volunteers have stepped in and raised money to supplement naturalist programs in 25 parks, said Friends president Bill Zager.

Education mandated

Wisconsin enacted a law mandating environmental education in the early part of the 20th century when the Dust Bowl was fresh on people’s minds and Wisconsin had its own environmental problems after loggers clear-cut the state’s forests.

The law doesn’t include funding or penalties, but its requirements are in the DNR’s administrative code — which carries the same weight as law.

“The successful stewardship of those resources is largely dependent upon enlightened and responsible decision-making by Wisconsin citizens, government and private interests,” the regulations state. “Education is the foundation of effective resource management and environmental protection activities.”

One section of the regulations requires the department secretary to appoint a committee to give advice on environmental education. Dick couldn’t say if the group has been meeting, but he said the department is complying with the regulation.

The regulations also call for the department to actively work with other organizations on conservation education and to make educational materials and the expertise of DNR employees available to the public.

And they require DNR to assist schools at all grade levels and ensure that they understand “the importance of their environmental education.”

Climate change lessons

Education on climate change has been a particular sore point in Wisconsin, where several Republicans have questioned it.

A week or so after the DNR changed its global warming website, copies of the agency’s climate change education guide for teachers were recycled by the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education at UW-Stevens Point on instructions from the DNR.

“That resource is currently out of date and should no longer be distributed,” DNR air pollution program worker Lindsay Haas, said in a Jan. 5 email to the WCEE director.

“During our phone conversation you mentioned receiving a few calls regarding the resource,” Haas said in the email. “If the calls are from teachers, you can let them know that the resource is out of date and currently not available.”

Paul Robbins, director of the UW-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, said science is always advancing and it’s good to update teaching materials, but it was hard to imagine that a 2009 guide on climate change would be unusable.

“I’ve never been contacted to shred any teaching materials in my entire career,” Robbins said. “And neither have most teachers, I’d wager, whether K-12 or higher ed. That’s a weird one, for sure.”

The guide was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Environmental Education Board, which Walker and the Legislature eliminated in the 2015-17 budget.

In its last round of grants, the board distributed 41 two-year grants totaling over $300,000 for schools and outdoor centers. The money came from a surcharge on pollution fines, which have declined under Walker, and from a forestry tax he wants to eliminate in the current budget.

The Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education at UW-Stevens Point, which provides educational support on the topics of forestry and energy efficiency, was also to be eliminated in Walker’s 2015-17 budget, but the Legislature balked after the environmental educators group protested.

Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to accurately attribute the source and date of an email on climate change teaching materials.

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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.