Green Fire group to fill DNR voids

Patrick Durkin/USA TodayWI Green Fire, August 17, 2017

The Wisconsin River has benefited greatly from science-based regulations and environmental programs.
(Photo: Patrick Durkin/For USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)
The Wisconsin River has benefited greatly from science-based regulations and environmental programs. (Photo: Patrick Durkin/For USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

What would you think of our Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and police and fire departments if their leaders so stained their sworn duties that retirees from those forces felt duty-bound to return to public service at their expense?

Ashamed? Outraged? Scared? Confused?

Yes, all those. But grateful, too. It’s good to know that people who put on the uniform seldom lose their commitment.

A similar response is underway in Wisconsin as retired scientists and communicators from our universities and the Department of Natural Resources are joining a group called Wisconsin’s Green Fire to fill science-driven duties once entrusted to the DNR. The group’s goal is to temporarily fill information and education duties sacrificed in recent years by a GOP-led Legislature and DNR administrators trying to please the governor who appointed them. They plan to testify at hearings, speak to civic groups, give media interviews and generally continue the public information work they did during their careers.

Green Fire launched on Earth Day, April 22, and has 140 members so far. The “Green Fire” name links the group to Aldo Leopold, Wisconsin’s fabled conservationist. In “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Leopold described watching a “fierce green fire dying” in a wolf’s eyes.

When two of Green Fire’s organizers spoke Aug. 12 at the Wisconsin Outdoor Communicators Association’s annual conference in Eagle River, they said the state can’t afford to let DNR administrators abandon the agency’s science-based responsibilities.

Terry Daulton, Mercer, a former biologist and researcher with the DNR and National Park Service, is the group’s coordinator. Joining her at the WOCA conference was Bob Martini, Rhinelander, a former DNR water-resources scientist who received the John C. Brogan Award from Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board in 1983, and the North American River Management Society Career Achievement Award in 2014.

Daulton hopes Wisconsin Green Fire will quickly eliminate its reason for being by helping the DNR reclaim its duties to the public. She knows it won’t be easy. In fact, when Rep. Nick Milroy, D-South Range, addressed WOCA members earlier that morning, he estimated it would take at least 20 years to rebuild the DNR to what it was 10 years ago.

After all, lawmakers have eliminated taxpayer support for state parks, slashed funding for the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, offered 10,000 acres of public land for sale, and cut 11 full-time positions in education and 18 positions in scientific research. The agency has also removed language about human-related causes of climate change from its website.

The list of forsaken DNR duties also includes:

» Slashing the agency’s 70-year presence at the Wisconsin State Fair to include only small displays about state parks, state forests and endangered resources.

» Forbidding DNR staff from testifying at legislative hearings unless requested by a bill’s author or the committee’s chair.

» Forbidding DNR staff from talking to media unless they’re the designated spokesperson for a specific topic or receive prior approval.

» Reducing the DNR’s Natural Resources magazine — a popular, self-supporting, 100-year-old publication — from six issues to four annually.

» Eliminating the agency’s Environmental Education for Kids! program and website. Eek! was an 18-year agency mainstay. A nonprofit group, the Wisconsin Green Schools Network, took over the popular program this spring.

Martini said lawmakers and governor-appointed administrators don’t realize that science-driven policies and programs benefit taxpayers, businesses and natural resources alike.

“People and businesses get hurt when you move away from science-based management, and use philosophy and political ideas to make policy,” Martini said. He then discussed four beneficial programs he once led, but doesn’t think are possible in today’s DNR.

» Wisconsin River cleanup: After the federal Clean Water Act passed in 1972, the DNR was tasked with making the state’s namesake river clean enough for swimming and sportfishing.

“The river had been trashed for decades,” Martini said. “You couldn’t find fish in most places because dissolved oxygen dropped to zero in three 40-mile segments. There were 15 pulp and paper mills, and 64 municipalities discharging waste into the system, as well as lots of agricultural nonpoint pollution.

“People in the Wisconsin River valley said if you try to clean up that mess, the whole paper industry will leave and we’ll have economic devastation. We set up a strong science-based, data-gathering and modeling system to determine exactly how much each paper mill and municipality had to cut back.

“Those early complaints from mayors and industry folks would shut down the project today,” Martini continued. “And the Wisconsin River would not be clean. It now meets all water-quality standards. We achieved 93 percent in total waste cutbacks, and not a single mill went out of business or moved out of the state.”

» Acid rain: DNR studies in 1979 found Wisconsin rainwater was 10 to 100 times more acidic than normal. About 2,000 lakes were susceptible and 12 were already affected. By 1986 the DNR had enough data to persuade the Legislature to make utilities cut sulfur dioxide emissions by at least 50 percent.

The utilities responded by buying the West’s low-sulfur coal, and locking in 30-year contracts at low prices. When the federal government copied Wisconsin’s standards, the price of low-sulfur coal escalated, but Wisconsin’s prices were locked in by contract.

» Aldicarb pesticides: This bug-killer was once widely sprayed to control Colorado potato beetles, but turned up in hundreds of private wells in the Central Sands region. Growers believed Union Carbide’s claims that even one beetle per potato plant would kill profits. UW-Extension researchers, however, found profits were possible with nine to 10 beetles per plant. Aldicarb disappeared and farmers profited by not wasting money on it.

» Dam removals: A dam in Merrill proved it was worth more removed than restored. During its final years, the dam generated $34,000 of electricity annually, but insurance on the failing structure was $50,000, and damages to upstream homes totaled $110,000 one year when the dam’s gates weren’t properly operated. Repairing the dam would have cost taxpayers $2 million.

Instead, the DNR removed the dam, and the city turned 120 acres once underwater into a beautiful park. Property values along the river increased, and game fish once again used valuable habitats the dam made inaccessible.

There’s a lesson in all this, of course: Science, education and open government are good for business, people and natural resources. The alternatives? As the Dalai Lama once wrote: “A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.”

Until lawmakers and the DNR regain our trust, we’ll be hearing more from Wisconsin’s Green Fire.

Patrick Durkin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. Email him at

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