MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Conservationists and outdoors enthusiasts hope Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers will re-energize Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources after years of cuts under Republican Scott Walker, counting on him to return the agency to a science-based footing and get tougher on polluters and chronic wasting disease.
Evers will have broad authority to make sweeping changes at the department after he takes office in January, starting with appointing a new secretary and replacing the executive staff. He'll be able to propose even more substantive changes in his 2019-21 executive budget, including more money for the agency and restoring axed positions.
"(An Evers administration) will significantly change how the current conservation and environmental laws are implemented and enforced," George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and a former DNR secretary under Gov. Tommy Thompson. "You're going to see morale immediately go up among staff that were uncomfortable with some of the positions taken by DNR over the last eight years. DNR staff right now just keep their heads down."
Republicans have long vilified the department as an impediment to business expansion. Walker and GOP lawmakers transformed the agency over his eight years in office.
Walker's four budgets drained nearly $90 million from the department, cut nearly 250 positions, including half of the agency's science researchers, scaled back land purchases and cut support for state parks, leaving them to survive on user fees.
Under Walker's leadership, the agency scrubbed language from its website stating human activities are causing climate change. State auditors in 2016 discovered the department wasn't following its own policies for policing pollution from factory farms.
Walker signed bills easing regulations for iron and allowing sulfide mining, sending environmentalists into an outrage. DNR officials also have decided to follow Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel's legal opinion that they lack the authority to consider high-capacity wells impact on nearby waters, leading to criticism that the wells are sucking lakes and streams dry.
Walker also took a hands-off approach to chronic wasting disease, bowing to deer hunters upset with the DNR's goal of thinning the state herd to slow the disease's spread.
Evers' agenda for the department is unclear. Campaign spokesman Sam Lau didn't immediately reply to an email seeking details. Evers said during the campaign that he wants to re-inject science into the agency and review air permits for Foxconn Technology Group's massive flat-screen plant under construction in Mount Pleasant, but he didn't emphasize environmental and outdoor issues.
His website talks vaguely about plans to replace lead pipes, creating new outdoor opportunities and supporting the Paris climate change accords but offers few details.
Nick Novak, a spokesman for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's largest business group and a powerful advocate for business expansion, declined to comment on the ramifications of an Evers administration. A message left with the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, which advocates for factory farms, wasn't immediately returned.
Conservationists have their wish lists, though.
Larry Bonde, chairman of the Conservation Congress, a group of sportsmen who advise the DNR on policy, said he hopes Evers' DNR will consider raising hunting and fishing fees, which haven't increased in years even though the agency needs more revenue. He'd also like to see Evers ban baiting and feeding deer in hopes of slowing CWD and allow department experts to testify about bills after largely remaining silent during Walker's tenure.
Clean Wisconsin lobbyist Amber Meyer Smith said she wants Evers to focus on reducing groundwater contamination, address climate change and promote clean energy sources.
Meyers predicted Evers will appoint DNR executives with natural resource management experience, ramp up education about CWD and call for testing more deer for the disease.
The new governor also will likely renew the DNR's land stewardship program and push the department to stiffen pollution permit requirements, Meyers said. He also expects Evers will block any Republican bills relaxing environmental regulations while clamping down on polluters, especially with Democrat Josh Kaul backing him up as the state's new attorney general.
"You're going to see the science of air, water, environmental quality come back to the agency," former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle said.