- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 4, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to strip the state Department of Natural Resources board of its powers would be a huge mistake and rob citizens of the chance to provide meaningful input on conservation decisions, some board members and environmental groups said Wednesday.

The Republican governor’s state budget proposal calls for transforming the board into an advisory panel, ending its ability to set policy for the DNR. That would allow the governor to control the agency directly through Secretary Cathy Stepp, a Walker appointee, with no checks or balances.

The seven-member board includes five Walker appointees and has mostly avoided publicly crossing the governor since he took office in 2011. Walker’s office has offered little official explanation for the proposal beyond a budget summary that promises the move would strengthen leadership in the DNR. His spokeswoman didn’t immediately return an email seeking more detailed reasons.

DNR spokesman Bill Cosh said Stepp would still value the board’s opinion and seek their counsel. But George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and a former DNR secretary under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, said the proposal would render the board useless.

“This is the final removal of citizen-based conservation in Wisconsin,” said George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and a former DNR secretary under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. “It gives all the power to the political appointee of the governor.”

“I’m speechless,” board member Jane Wiley, who was appointed by former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. “I think that’s an incredible mistake.”

The board, made up of gubernatorial appointees, currently gives the DNR the thumbs-up or thumbs-down on policy proposals or orders modifications. Its decisions come after taking extensive comments from the public, particularly from the Conservation Congress, a statewide group of outdoor lovers that has advised the panel for decades. The process has become tradition in a state that prides itself on its outdoors heritage.

Walker’s proposal would rob citizens of the opportunity to offer that meaningful input and a chance to participate in open policy decisions, board member Christine Thomas, a Doyle appointee, said Wednesday.

“Our transparent and open process has been the envy of most states for decades,” Thomas said. “Every other piece of government that interacts in the policy process has the right to do it behind closed doors. And we don’t.”

The board’s chairman, Preston Cole, who was appointed by Doyle in 2007 and reappointed by Walker in 2013, said the proposal blindsided him. He wants to know why the governor made the move.

“Our mandate is to listen to folks who have some concerns,” Cole said. “I’m interested in knowing why that methodology no longer works in the state of Wisconsin.”

Meyer said the move also would weaken the Conservation Congress, making them an advisory body to an advisory body.

Conservation Congress spokesman Lee Fahrney said the organization hadn’t formed a position on the proposal yet because it’s so new.

Walker released his spending plan Tuesday evening. It now goes to the Legislature’s budget committee, which will spend the next four months revising it before forwarding it on for a vote in the full Assembly and Senate.

It’s unclear what GOP leaders think of the board proposal. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, supports advisory councils but wants elected officials to make the decisions, his spokeswoman said. A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Republicans will get a better idea of support for the plan as budget deliberations continue.

Besides the board proposal, Walker’s budget also would eliminate 66 positions in the DNR’s science bureau in lieu of hiring consultants to conduct the agency’s studies and halts the agency’s land acquisition program until at least 2028.

“I just see things sliding so far backward now,” said Kim Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates. “Just another step down the road of the government not paying attention to its citizens.”

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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