DNR's Cathy Stepp defends her record on climate change and pollution

By Steven Verburg, Baraboo News Republic

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources secretary Cathy Stepp defended her agency’s record on climate change and environmental protection during a legislative hearing Thursday on Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2017-19 budget.

The department is making progress fixing shortcomings in enforcement of water quality laws by reallocating employees, so legislators don’t need to be concerned that Walker’s plan calls for further cuts in agency staff, Stepp told members of the Joint Finance Committee.

But Democratic lawmakers pointed to dwindling financial penalties faced by polluters in recent years, and they scoffed when Stepp denied that insufficient staffing or leniency was behind the decrease.

Stepp said since Walker appointed her in 2011 she has brought customer-friendly private-sector principles at the agency. Now, instead of fearing the department, business operators view it as “a safe space” where they seek advice that helps them comply with regulations and avoid environmental violations.

Democrats also hit Stepp because the department last summer made it easier for farms and other businesses to obtain high-capacity well permits that pump out millions of gallons of groundwater.

Decades of scientific research have linked well operations to lakes that have dried up in the Central Sands region of the state, but industry groups and Republicans who control state government say more study is needed to prove pumping needs to be curtailed.

Stepp objected when Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, told her she wasn’t adequately protecting state waters or the DNR’s scientific and educational functions.

“To say I’m not doing my job when I’m following the law that all of you have put in place, I think is unfair,” Stepp said.

DNR staff is available to provide scientific advice to the Legislature on writing laws that could specify how regulators should decide when too much water is being withdrawn from an aquifer and how much shrinkage of lakes and streams is unacceptable, Stepp said, renewing an offer she has made previously.

Members of the Republican majority who control state government are currently pushing through a bill to further reduce high-capacity well regulation.

Climate change questions

Stepp chuckled as Shankland complained the agency neglected an important duty to educate the public on global warming in December when it removed information about the human causes of climate change from its website.

Shankland bristled and told Stepp the potential for climate change to harm the planet wasn’t funny, and most people have recognized this.

Stepp said she didn’t think climate change was funny, but she has been befuddled by the strong reaction against the new website language suggesting there is uncertainty about whether greenhouse gases were the cause. Hundreds of people phoned and emailed their shock and dismay.

The department changed the website after repeated demands by a writer for a small northern Wisconsin newspaper who claims the causes of climate change are unproven.

Shankland pointed out 97 percent of climate scientists have concluded human activity is very likely the cause.

A science-based agency like the DNR should take a role in educating the public on such an important issue, Shankland said.

When Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, asked Stepp for her views on climate change, the committee co-chairman, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, interrupted and said the answer wasn’t relevant to the budget.

Stepp also responded to criticism of the proposed elimination of the DNR’s popular, subscriber-supported Natural Resources magazine.

“We at DNR are stewards of our natural resources and not magazine publishers,” Stepp said.

The magazine is self-supporting financially, but Stepp said it takes staff members away from their core duties in a time when the department has been losing resources and gaining responsibilities.

Half the magazine’s articles were written by staff members in recent years, Stepp said.

The department can communicate with the public through social media and other means, and a private publisher “absolutely” could fill any void left behind, Stepp said.

Republicans and Democrats told Stepp that the magazine is one of the hottest budget issues for significant numbers of constituents.

Many prefer to read paper publications instead of digital, said Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam. Others noted that rural residents and others don’t have ready internet access.

Detailed budget proposal

Continuing a two-decade-long trend, Walker would reduce the DNR’s $562 million budget by 2.5 percent over two years. The budget calls for:

•Allowing the DNR to set higher state parks admission and camping fees for the most popular parks. Walker’s spending plan calls for up to $10 more for admission and $10 per night depending on the park. That’s on top of 2015 admissions increases of $5 at some parks and camping fee increases as high as $10 per night at popular sites with electrical service. Walker and the Legislature withdrew tax support and raised fees two years ago, leaving a $1.4 million annual budget hole. DNR budget director Joe Polasek said the parks revenue exceeded spending last year as attendance rose. Stepp said she believes the park system will continue to thrive.

•Studying the transfer to the state agriculture department of the DNR’s regulation of animal feedlots, which are a source of tainted drinking water and weed and algae growth that has impaired use of hundreds of lakes and streams. Critics say the shift could lead to a loss of expertise in a highly technical area.

•Moving up to 56 DNR forestry headquarters employees out of Madison to northern Wisconsin, where most logging takes place despite criticism about the expected cost of up to $17 million over 20 years. The division already has 235 regional employees in northern Wisconsin. Given how financially strapped the DNR is, members of the department’s policy board have said the proposal left them puzzled. The DNR estimated first-year costs of $1.1 million to $6 million to lease or buy a new headquarters in Wausau for 45 headquarters employees, with additional building-related expenses of between $9.4 million and $10.8 million over the next two decades.

The budget proposal is also notable for what it doesn’t include.

Walker isn’t seeking additional funding to bolster the DNR’s water pollution prevention programs, which have stumbled in part because of inadequate staffing as more lakes and streams have been found to be impaired by contamination.

The department transferred four employees to regulation of concentrated animal feeding operations. But Natural Resources Board members and others have suggested the department needs more funding.

The DNR keeps less than $80,000 of the roughly $6 million in fees it collects annually from CAFOs, sewage treatment plants and private industry, with the rest going to the state’s general fund.

Walker isn’t seeking higher fees for fishing or hunting licenses despite a January report from the DNR saying $5 million was needed to avoid cuts in programs protecting wildlife habitat.

Stepp and DNR deputy secretary Kurt Thiede said a recent reorganization will allow the agency to be more efficient.