- Associated Press - Monday, January 16, 2017

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Gov. Scott Walker promised to transform the state Department of Natural Resources. And he has, cutting scientists, shrinking its budget and pushing the agency to be more receptive to industry.

And even more changes could be in store. Walker and Republican lawmakers, who hold their largest majorities in decades, are pondering whether to eliminate the agency and spread its duties across state government as well as charge people more to get into state parks and to hunt. It all adds up to a picture of a struggling agency no one recognizes any more, critics say.

“They want this chamber of commerce mentality,” said Scott Hassett, who served as DNR secretary under former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. “That’s a different image than protector of natural resources. It’s sad.”

Agency officials and the Walker administration counter that the DNR is doing fine, carrying out its mission to protect the environment and enhance resources while becoming more customer-friendly. Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the DNR has become “more efficient, effective, transparent, and accountable” since Walker took office.

Republicans have long criticized the DNR, saying its pollution and hunting regulations are too strict, making it difficult for businesses to expand and draining the fun from outdoor sports. Walker’s three state budgets cut $59 million from the DNR and eliminated nearly 200 positions, including half of its science researchers. Last month DNR officials announced a major reorganization to deal with staffing cuts, including allowing large livestock farm operators to use consultants to help write permit applications so DNR staff won’t have to spend so much time on them.

The budgets also have scaled back the stewardship program and removed support for state parks, leaving them to survive on fees. That’s created a $1.4 million deficit in the parks account, and Walker’s now mulling raising access fees.

In 2011 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cited 75 deficiencies in how the DNR handles water regulation. Two environmental groups sued the DNR in 2014 to force the agency to adopt federal air pollution standards that were published a year earlier. The agency finally adopted them late last year.

This past June, state auditors found that the agency wasn’t following its own policies for policing pollution from large livestock farms and wastewater treatment plants. The audit also found a permit backlog for large farms, with DNR employees not having enough time to closely monitor the farms’ operations.

Last fall federal regulators visited the DNR to investigate claims that the agency is failing to enforce water pollution laws and regulations. The EPA hasn’t released any findings yet. And last month the agency removed language from its website that stated human activities are causing climate change, saying instead that the cause is debatable even though most scientists agree burning fossil fuels causes global warming.

What’s more, waning interest in hunting has resulted in fewer license purchases, creating a $4 million gap between revenue and spending authority for habitat management projects. The DNR has suggested Walker make up the difference by raising hunting and fishing license fees.

“So many changes and roadblocks have tied DNR’s hands so dramatically that they’re really not able to do the job the public expects them to be doing,” said Amber Meyer Smith, a lobbyist for environmental advocacy group Clean Wisconsin, a plaintiff in the air lawsuit.

Scott Manley, a lobbyist for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group and a key Republican constituency, said the DNR has become friendlier to businesses and is still doing its job despite the staffing cuts.

DNR spokesman James Dick cited a list of accomplishments. They included improved air quality - a DNR report released in September found air pollution has dropped statewide over the last decade - efforts to recruit hunters and the purchase of a conservation easement on 67,000 acres in northern Wisconsin, the largest conservation purchase in state history.

He also pointed out the agency is working to correct the EPA-identified deficiencies, walleye stocking has expanded and the agency has made strides in building a customer service image.

“There will always be critics who vocally disagree with what we’re doing but we prefer to note the accomplishments we’ve made over the last five years,” Dick said. “Since the start of this DNR administration, we have always believed it is possible to protect the environment, wildlife habitat and other natural resources without impeding the economic growth and development of our state.”

The agency still isn’t getting any love from GOP lawmakers. Rep. Adam Jarchow has resurrected a proposal to split the DNR into two new departments that would handle wildlife and pollution and spread the rest of the agency’s duties across three existing agencies. He has said the DNR doesn’t function in its current form.

Republicans have tried to break up the agency before but have failed in the face of opposition from outdoor clubs and environmental groups. Still, Walker has said the plan is worth pursuing. Five former DNR secretaries who served under both Democrats and Republicans, including Hassett and George Meyer, now executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, sent Walker a letter last week urging him to keep the agency intact.

Meyer, who served under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, said in a telephone interview that Walker is building a “negative” environmental legacy.

“His idea of customer service,” Meyer said, “is really just a business customer service.”

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

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