Cathy Stepp’s 6½ year tenure as Department of Natural Resources secretary proved that Wisconsin’s natural resources can’t be entrusted to someone serving at the governor’s whim.
That responsibility must return to the seven-citizen Natural Resources Board.
Stepp arrived for the post unqualified in January 2011 and left disregarded in late August. Instead of being chief steward of the public’s natural resources, she was more the doorman who let cronies bypass lines and security so they could ransack the agency, and replace sound science with dogma, silent denials and dubious assurances.
Conservationists and environmentalists loathed Stepp for not preventing the pillaging, while politicians such as Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, and Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, resented her for not holding the door wide enough for them and their plunder-toting gurney.
As Stepp departed for Kansas City to become deputy regional director at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 7 offices, she said she was excited about “bringing some of the reforms we’ve … put in place in Wisconsin to the national stage.”
Ignoring the public trust is not reform, nor is disdain for scientific review and open communication. If Stepp helps President Donald Trump the way she helped Gov. Scott Walker, she’ll start neutering the EPA by axing or not hiring researchers, educators and inspectors; dismissing agency and university experts from advisory committees; and letting lawmakers work with lobbyists to enact whatever natural-resource laws they choose without hearing peer-reviewed facts from professionals.
And yet in her farewell email to DNR staff Aug. 29, Stepp wrote: “More people see us now as an agency that makes decision (sic) using sound science, the law, and common sense. We assist people and businesses in understanding the law so they can proceed with their plans and not be delayed by bureaucracy. This approach protects the environment and benefits Wisconsin economically as well.”
Still, for all her delusions, Stepp wasn’t the DNR’s core problem, even as she scuttled its core mission. That distinction belongs to Walker, Gov. Jim Doyle, Gov. Tommy Thompson and any other politician who lets governors appoint DNR secretaries.
In case you’ve forgotten, here’s the DNR’s pledge to Wisconsin:
“To protect and enhance our natural resources: our air, land and water; our wildlife, fish and forests; and the ecosystems that sustain all life.
“To provide a healthy, sustainable environment and a full range of outdoor opportunities.
“To ensure the right of all people to use and enjoy these resources in their work and leisure.
“To work with people to understand each other’s views and to carry out the public will.
“And in this partnership consider the future and generations to follow.”
Unfortunately, our current leadership smirks at such virtues. They’re more Roman Craig than Theodore Roosevelt. Quick reminder: Craig was Dan Aykroyd’s character in the 1988 movie “The Great Outdoors.” When viewing the vast public forests of the Great Lakes states, here’s what Craig envisioned:
“I see a syndicated development consortium exploiting over a billion-and-a-half-dollars in forest products. I see a paper mill and, if the strategic metals are there, a mining operation. A greenbelt between the condos on the lake, and a waste-management facility focusing on the newest rage in toxic waste — medical refuse: … all safely contained, sunken in the lake and sealed for centuries.”
Our Capitol dwellers don’t stop there. They waive environmental studies, safeguards and inspections to allow similar exploitations, and even ignored barnyard manure in private wells until shamed to act. Meanwhile, they’ve forbidden the DNR from regulating high-capacity wells that drain bass lakes and trout streams; and they’ve invited corporations to write their own regulations on mining, fish-farming and electronics-assembly manufacturing.
To truly serve Wisconsin, leaders must realize that enduring public-private partnerships aren’t sparked by one-night stands and arranged marriages. Rather, they follow the carpenter’s maxim: “Measure twice, cut once.” They systematically capitalize on the expertise of top researchers, economists, sociologists and engineers — not just fellow lawmakers and darlings OK’d by the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.
True leaders confidently collaborate with rivals and competitors. They don’t just reward supporters, punish opponents, and impose petty political doctrines. Politics powered by intimidation and gerrymandering cannot be sustained.
Then again, Stepp benefited from another trait of political cowardice: delaying tactics. The Walker administration has mostly ignored CWD while stifling tests and research that would expose such folly.
Stepp fled before she could be forever tainted by her willful disregard, but Gov. Walker might not be so lucky as CWD worsens beneath his nose, and voters grow increasingly wary of its impacts.
After all, voters ultimately decide politicians’ fates, and not just the governor’s. Conscientious voters should ask Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, why he quietly cedes his party’s environmental conscience to Sen. Tiffany and Rep. Jarchow. Voters should also ask the guv why he heeded the advice of lobbyist Bob Welch and his Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association clients while ignoring the Wisconsin Conservation Congress when relaxing the deer baiting/feeding ban.
And everyone should ask their state senators and representatives why they vote for laws and tacitly support policies that commit billions of taxpayer money to mere hopes of private-sector jobs, but oppose spending modest millions on real-world jobs in schools, universities, agencies and little-known companies that would benefit the public and our natural resources.
Voters, this is on you. As Teddy Roosevelt suggested 110 years ago, conservation foresight is the “one characteristic more essential than any other.” But it’s not easy. He conceded that people live “with an eye single to the present” that permits “the reckless waste and destruction of much of our natural wealth.”
TR considered that attitude uncivilized, saying: “Only a savage would … show such reckless disregard for the future.” Further, “There isn’t any man whom we despise more than the man who has a good time himself and whose children pay for it.”
Roosevelt’s outrage started turning the nation’s attitudes, but it took the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression and waters set ablaze by pollution to spawn the laws and economic incentives that delivered the environmental benefits we enjoy today.
If we truly respect history, we’ll act on our own rather than await motivation from future environmental disasters.