A New Governor Could Mean Hope for Wisconsin’s Environment

Rebecca Holland/Curiosity MagazineWI Green Fire, November 13, 2018


It’s been one week since Democrat Tony Evers defeated incumbent Republican Scott Walker in the Wisconsin governor’s race. Over the last eight years, Walker has moved the state to the right, cut taxes, lessened the power of labor unions, and diminished environmental regulations. Now, Evers says he will reverse many of these decisions, and environmental groups are hopeful.

Wisconsin currently ranks last among  states with renewable portfolio standards, though it was one of the first in the Midwest to set standards in 2000. Walker, who is pro-business, has rolled back environmental regulations, arguing doing so would bring more business to Wisconsin. Foxconn, for example, was exempted from waterway and wetlands requirements as part of a $3 billion incentive package earlier this year. Walker and Attorney General Brad Schimel, who also lost reelection last Tuesday, have lowered pollution penalties and attempted to block federal laws on water pollution and greenhouse gases.

There are a host of environmental issues facing Wisconsin today. Wetlands are being destroyed and groundwater withdrawals are harming lakes and drinking water, which is also worsening.

“Wisconsin has been a freshwater paradise, but water is not an inexhaustible resource,” says Fred Clark, a former state legislator and current board member of Wisconsin’s Green Fire, an organization promoting science-based conservation policy.  “There are places in Wisconsin where we are extracting groundwater for industrial and agricultural uses at a rate that’s not sustainable. We’re drawing down lake and stream levels and harming property owners because our state has not been willing to properly regulate water use.”

The future of public lands is another big issue, as is climate change, especially relevant after an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report last month warned of dire consequences if global warming is not contained within the next 12 years.

“Wisconsin has experienced unprecedented flood and storm events in recent years growing in frequency and size and cost,” says Clark. “Year after year we’re seeing these really historic levels of flooding all over the state. As that continues to become a pattern we need to prepare, to make investments for communities, and to plan and predict for those kinds of experiences.”

The majority of Americans want the government to do more about climate change, and that includes Wisconsinites.

“These are no longer considered unusual acts–this our new climate future and as a state we need to begin planning for that,” says Clark.

Evers has pledged to do more for Wisconsin’s environment.

“I will respect the evidence and reduce the greenhouse gas pollution that causes climate disruption, while creating tens of thousands of good-paying, clean-energy jobs,” he told the Wisconsin State Journal.

He’s also said he will reverse laws that made filling wetlands easier.

“Allowing the destruction of wetlands and prohibiting local governments from protecting our lakes has contributed to the flooding and blue-green algae pollution we experienced this summer,” he said.

Meanwhile, incoming Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul says he will hold polluters accountable and do a better job on conservation issues. Wisconsin’s Green Fire hopes Evers and all elected officials will use science to inform public policy decisions.

“Unfortunately, in Wisconsin and many other places, we’re seeing the rejection of science and the scientific method in making decisions about issues that are politicized. Conservation and wildlife management and protection are becoming increasingly politicized, leading to the devaluing of science and good information for making decisions,” says Clark.

Wisconsin’s Green Fire was founded in September 2017 and aims to share climate information with Wisconsin citizens and ensure science remains part of the conversation. Among its members it has more than 3,000 years of experience.

Wisconsin has a Public Trust Doctrine, one of the oldest legal tenants in the state. It says that Wisconsin lakes and rivers are a public resource and declares that all navigable waters are “common highways and forever free.”

“Lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands, waterways–any place that has a perennial body of water belongs to the people of the state and has very strong legal protection. You can’t fill it, destroy it, or significantly alter It without a very high bar of demonstrating a reason to do that,” Clark says. “The doctrine is what allows fisherman to fish a trout stream surrounded by private ownership, and what prevents large corporations from destroying water bodies when they want to create a factory or build a mine.”

However, over the last eight years Wisconsin has seen legislation and decisions that violate the doctrine, which is held in trust by the Department of Natural Resources. During his time as governor, Walker has appointed former Republican lawmakers to DNR posts.

“What has been extremely unfortunate is that our natural resources agency, which has had a long tradition of operation based on science and professionals doing their jobs, is now seeing more and more regulatory decisions and permit decisions dictated by politics,” says Clark. “Decisions are made by political appointees instead of career professionals. We want a DNR that has independence again. We don’t want decisions  being made by staff in the governor’s office thinking about the next campaign.”

Evers has said he will hire based on experience and skill, not political affiliation or influence. He told the Wisconsin State Journal he would let the DNR speak publicly on proposed laws and restore the department’s education sector.

No matter what state you live in, Clark encourages citizens concerned about conservation issues to build relationships with their elected officials.

“Talk to them, meet with them, take them outdoors and show them places that are special,” he says. “Build the kind of dialogue so that legislators, especially new ones, can have a better understanding of who it is they’re representing and what resources they’re representing. When someone is operating from an ideology but not enough knowledge of what’s happening on the ground, that’s when we get the worst decisions.”

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