Spencer Black served for 26 years in the State Legislature. He was Chair of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee and the Minority Leader. Black authored numerous environ- mental laws including the Steward- ship Fund, the Mining Moratorium Bill, the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, the statewide recycling program, and the endangered species match grant. He is currently Vice President of the National Sierra Club, Adjunct Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at UW Madison, and a newspaper columnist.
Wisconsin’s Proud Conservation Legacy – Is it in Danger?
By Spencer Black
Keynote address at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Friends of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve
Wisconsin has a proud conservation legacy. We were the first state to ban DDT when it threatened our national symbol, the bald eagle. We were the first state to enact comprehensive groundwater protection legislation, and it was our senator and governor, Gaylord Nelson, who launched Earth Day.
Wisconsin’s conservation legacy
That legacy has two parts. The first part is to appreciate that Wisconsin is naturally blessed: great forests, extensive grasslands, a wealth of water resources, a varied and beautiful landscape, and an abundance of wildlife.
With that blessing comes the opportunity to enjoy, and enjoy we do. Along with the Packers and cheese, nothing unites the people of our state as much as the joy we take in being outdoors. The Lakeshore Preserve and the adjacent Lake Mendota are cases in point. I take advantage of this wonderful resource, as do many of you, by paddling, fishing, swimming, biking, walking, or just sitting back and enjoying the view.
If the first part of our legacy is enjoying the blessing of our natural resources, the other half is the realization that with such a blessing comes the responsibility to protect it.
Basic to protecting our resource is understanding it. I remember when Gaylord Nelson was asked if he could pass just one environmental bill, what that would be. His immediate response was “environmental education.” And basic to the understanding of environmental protection is the realization that our resources are not unlimited. One can imagine the first European settlers coming to Wisconsin and thinking the forests were inexhaustible, the passenger pigeon population was close to infinite, and the millions of acres of prairie were beyond their ability to disturb. But, as we know, less than 1% of our original grasslands remain, the great northern forests were largely cut down in just a few decades, and the passenger pigeon, once among the most numerous of bird species, is extinct.
It was probably the reaction to the cutover of our forests that spawned the beginnings of a public conservation conscience in 19th century Wisconsin and from which our deep culture of environmental protection initially springs.
Conservation’s rocky first steps
The first notable step of the nascent conservation movement was an attempt to save some of Wisconsin’s forests from the lumber industry. In 1878, the Legislature approved a state park which encompassed almost ½ million acres in northern Wisconsin. However, the effort was not successful. Most of the land was never acquired by the state and much of the land that the state did own was eventually sold to private interests.
The ill-fated first state park is indicative of the history of the conservation movement. It is not one smooth narrative of learning from our environmental mistakes and making things right, but rather a story of progress and regression.
Conservation efforts received a boost from the political success of the Progressive Movement. Concern for the outdoors was a key part of that movement, both here in Wisconsin with Fighting Bob La Follette and nationally with President Teddy Roosevelt.
The first evidence of that boost was the formation of the State Park Board in 1907. John Nolen developed a plan for a park system that recommended the creation of four parks: Devils Lake, Fish Creek in Door County, the Confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers, and the Dells of the Wisconsin. All but one soon became parks which we know today as Peninsula, Wyalusing, and, of course, Devils Lake. The fourth, the Dells, has since been protected in part by the Stewardship Fund.
La Follette worked closely with university professors, most notably Charles Van Hise, who chaired the State Conservation Commission, was an advisor to Teddy Roosevelt, and wrote the first textbook on conservation. La Follette’s collaboration with the university illustrates two key elements of Wisconsin conservation: a scientific basis for decision making and public education about our natural resources.
In 1915, another hallmark of Wisconsin natural resources management commenced. That year saw the formation of the first comprehensive conservation agency, the Conservation Commission, which merged the Park Board, the Board of Forestry, the Fisheries Commission, and the Game Wardens. This agency was essentially the predecessor of today’s DNR. Integrated resource management is another key element of conservation in this state.
The new commission proved to be another example of “one step forward, one step back” because of the unfortunate role of political patronage and special interest influence. The backsliding led Aldo Leopold to head up a fight for an independent commission, insulated, at least to some degree, from day-to-day political interference.
Leopold said in 1926 about his effort, “Conservation must have continuity of purpose and policy and freedom from interference from political control or manipulation.” Ninety years later, his word still resonate, perhaps louder than ever.
Wisconsin’s stewardship—a model for the nation
Generally, Wisconsin has done a good job of stewardship of our natural blessing and has often been a model for the nation. The Fox and Wisconsin Rivers, once open sewers, are much cleaner today. Wisconsin passed pioneering legislation to protect our groundwater. Our endangered species program has helped reestablish a number of extirpated species. The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program has protected over 600,000 acres of lands of ecological significance. Our statewide recycling program is the strongest and most comprehensive in the nation. The list could go on. We have much to be proud of.
Underlying all these efforts is strong public knowledge of the importance of environmental protection and strong public support for action. That public support, at least until recently, has been bipartisan. Nothing symbolizes that better than the fact our land conservation effort is named after Warren Knowles and Gaylord Nelson, two governors – one Democratic, one Republican – who both played major roles in protecting our outdoors.
Undermining of our conservation legacy
I wish I could end this talk right here, but, unfortunately, there is more to the story. The second part of the title of my talk on Wisconsin’s conservation legacy asks, “Is it in danger?” I am sorry to say it certainly is. Our conservation system is systematically being undermined. Since 2011, our environmental laws have been severely weakened and the enforcement of the rules that protect our air and water have been tepid or worse.
Most disturbing is what’s befallen the Department of Natural Resources. Once nationally respected as a watchdog for the environment, the DNR is now all too often a lapdog for polluters. Instead of being run by resource professionals, the department is run by a politician who has based her career on her harsh criticism of environmental laws. The division responsible for enforcing air and water regulations is run by a former lobbyist for the state’s largest polluters. The Science Bureau has been decimated. Decisions at the DNR are increasingly based not on science and what is best for our environment, but rather on what is best for politicians and their campaign contributors.
There is a long list of failure at the politically run, polluter-friendly DNR of the last 5 years, but I’ll confine myself to just a few examples. Enforcement of environmental laws has fallen sharply with a dramatic drop in the number of cases referred to the Department of Justice for prosecution of environmental violations. In one notorious case, the political leadership of DNR gave a virtual pass to a campaign contributor who dumped a large volume of human waste next to drinking wells in Jefferson County. In another case, the DNR refused to limit the expansion of megafarms in Kewaunee County, despite an order to do so from a judge who said “massive regulatory failure” led to widespread water pollution. In fact, more than one-third of wells in that county were found to be unsafe due to contamination from industrial farms.
The frac sand industry, which has rapidly expanded in the state, has had almost a free ride despite major threats to both air and water quality. A citizen’s petition for rules to regulate the industry, which, by the way, is a major source of campaign contributions, was denied by DNR.
The DNR’s failures are so great that 40 former DNR employees, alarmed by what has happened to the agency, have petitioned the U.S. EPA complaining that their former employer no longer effectively protects our state’s waters. This year alone, for example, 209 more state waterways failed to meet federal water quality standards.
We have also seen at the legislative and gubernatorial level a severe weakening of environmental laws. Here are just a few sad examples. Our laws regulating mining have been eviscerated at the request of an out-of-state strip mining company that contributed $700,000 towards the Governor’s reelection. The recent state budget eliminated all state funding for our state parks. The Legislature not only sharply reduced protections for our lakes but also limited what counties can do to safeguard our waters. The Legislature and Governor made destruction of our wetlands easier and severely reduced funding for our land protection program, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.
Protecting the environment—it’s in our bones
Well, I’ve just related a lot of bad news. I want to end on a more upbeat note. Conservation in Wisconsin has always been a fight. I am optimistic that we will turn things around. Why? Because protecting our environment is in our bones in Wisconsin.
Since 2011, we have lost our way with a politically compromised conservation agency, weakened safeguards for our waters, and a retreat from protecting our environmentally valuable lands. However, I don’t believe that is what the people of our state want. In the end, I trust the citizens of Wisconsin, as they have done for more than a century, will demand a restoration of our proud conservation legacy so that future generations may continue to enjoy the great blessings of the natural heritage of our beloved state.