DNR Secretary Stepp defends drop in polluter fines, ending natural resources magazine

By Jessie Opoien, The Capital Times

A steep reduction in financial penalties for polluters is the result of a more proactive approach from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the agency's head told members of the state's budget committee on Thursday.

"I promise you, we are not turning a blind eye to any of that," said DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp. "I think it's good news that the numbers are going down."

The agency works with producers to help move them into compliance when it hears of potential violations, emphasizing a "stepped enforcement process," Stepp said. That approach is more effective than the "long, drawn out process" of referring polluters to the state Department of Justice, she said.

Fines for violations of state environmental laws fell 78 percent from 2014 to 2015, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last year. At $306,834, it was the lowest amount since 2006.

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, agreed with Stepp that fewer violations should be a goal, but questioned whether the agency was letting violations go unpunished.

"I find it hard to believe that suddenly everyone in the state is protecting our environment equally," Shankland said.

But Joint Finance Committee co-chairman Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, likened the DNR approach to community policing, with its focus on building relationships and providing education on regulations as a means of reducing citations.

If arrests decreased under a community policing model, it would be seen as a positive, Nygren said, drawing a parallel to the decrease in environmental violation fines.

"We’re always going to drop the anvil when we need to," Stepp said. "But I will never apologize for working with producers to help them comply, because that protects the environment for all of us."

Stepp fielded questions for more than two hours on Thursday as the Joint Finance Committee held its third day of agency briefings on Gov. Scott Walker's $76.1 budget proposal.

Walker's two-year spending plan allocates about $1.1 billion for the DNR over the biennium, a 2.5 percent decrease from the 2016-17 base budget, and calls for a reorganization of the agency.

It would also eliminate a 100-year-old subscription-supported natural resources magazine, a move Stepp said would allow staff to spend more time focusing on their core duties.

The majority the magazine's subscribers receive it by purchasing a conservation patron license, Stepp said.

She acknowledged it has a "loyal following," but argued the agency could better reach people with digital efforts and social media.

The magazine had 82,369 subscribers as of March 10, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. The magazine has seen an increase in subscriptions since the budget proposal was introduced.

Rep. Mike Rohrkaste, R-Neenah, suggested the magazine could be phased out to cause less of a disruption to its readers who enjoy the printed publication.

Stepp dismissed suggestions that the magazine was put on the chopping block as part of an effort to tamp down discussions about climate change, arguing it was a business decision.

She and Shankland sparred over a decision by the DNR to remove language from its website that listed humans and greenhouse gases as the primary causes of climate change.

The job of the DNR is to regulate and enforce laws that are in place, not to issue definitive statements about climate change, Stepp said.

"I will leave the academics to continue the discussion about the cause of climate change," she said.