Promoting Science-Based Management of Wisconsin's Natural Resources

Paul Fanlund: On Wisconsin’s environment, the experts strike back

Paul Fanlund/Capital Times, August 31, 2018

A volunteer group led by Terry Daulton of northern Wisconsin has about 200 environmental professionals offering actual facts in the face of political attacks on environmental protection.
A volunteer group led by Terry Daulton of northern Wisconsin has about 200 environmental professionals offering actual facts in the face of political attacks on environmental protection.

The headline was succinct: “Record rain in Madison is what climate change looks like — especially in Midwest.”

The blog post from the Center for Limnology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison appeared two days after the catastrophic local rains on Aug. 20. Limnology may be home to the no-nonsense, scientific study of inland waters, but the writer offered this clever line: “Lake Mendota isn’t just knocking at our back door, it’s let itself in.”

The blog observed: “As the state’s media outlets take stock of the damage and report on the estimated clean up costs and interview a whole lot of people who have ‘never seen anything like this,’ we can’t help but notice a glaring omission in all of the news reports we’ve read — climate change has yet to be mentioned.”

Indeed.

In Wisconsin, those deeply worried about the environment have watched Gov. Scott Walker and fellow Republicans chisel away at the state’s bipartisan tradition of natural resource conservation for many years by denying climate science, weakening and eliminating regulations and reducing the capacity for professional research.

More recently, President Trump has created a mirror image of sorts on the national stage, naming Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. He was one of many avowed enemies of agencies they were chosen to run. Pruitt was eventually forced to resign not due to his rabid anti-environmentalism, but because of 13 federal investigations into potential ethical and legal violations. As columnist Frank Bruni of the New York Times wrote, Pruitt “was less a steward of breathable air than an emblem of ethical rot.”

OK then, so what to do about it?

Well, last year, Terry Daulton decided to act.

Daulton, a biologist and environmental educator, has lived in northern Wisconsin since 1977, when she began attending Northland College in Ashland. Daulton is an artist as well as a scientist and has two environmental degrees. Her husband, Jeff Wilson, is a retired wildlife technician for the state Department of Natural Resources.

“My husband and I were sitting and drinking coffee one morning and we were like, ‘We’ve just got to stop complaining and whining, we should just do something,’ and we came up with this idea to email a bunch of friends in the biological sciences,” she explained in a telephone interview.

“We should get together and see if there’s something that can be done to help at least get good information out to the public here in Wisconsin, because we are looking at declines in the conservation heritage here in the state, lack of good science information, the scrubbing of the DNR website of climate change information, et cetera.”

So she emailed 30 to 40 people “suggesting a gathering of people who had recently retired or were interested in this kind of project and we got an overwhelming response.”

Daulton continued, “It’s all been word-of-mouth pretty much between the network of scientists and natural resource managers.” They now have a member mailing list of about 400, about half of whom are natural resource professionals.

Today, Daulton is president of the board of Wisconsin’s Green Fire — Voices for Conservation, the product of that effort. The name connects to a movie title about famed Wisconsin conservationist Aldo Leopold. Though the group is not linked to the Aldo Leopold Foundation, its name refers indirectly to the “green fire” in the eyes of a dying wolf that Leopold described in his classic book “A Sand County Almanac.”

Billing itself as independent and nonpartisan, the group’s goal is to produce and share work by retired and active scientists on topics ranging from natural resource management to environmental law, research and education. The group is meeting soon to talk about communications strategies, as well as how to expand its membership and to raise money.

Among other things, Wisconsin’s Green Fire produces easily understood papers about bills before the Legislature hoping that lawmakers, nonprofit organizations and the media will value them as credible sources of real science. Three such reports I read were about state oversight of non-federal wetlands, conservation and management of gray wolves, and the impact of high-capacity wells on state waters. They were crystal clear, even to a layman.

They were not at all political documents, but in an era in which Walker, Trump and other Republicans are committed to ignoring and discrediting science as a core principle, science has become political.

When Wisconsin’s Green Fire was created, its organizers seemed to acknowledge as much. Under Walker, their announcement said, “Budgets have been slashed for Wisconsin state parks and public lands management, scientific research, the Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine, and the Wisconsin Environmental Education Board.” They also pointed out how references to climate change had been removed from the DNR website.

“Science-based, long-term management practices are no longer welcome at the table,” the group said.

Democrat Tony Evers is trying to defeat Walker this fall through an intense focus on the incumbent’s failure to fund education, health care and our crumbling infrastructure, always prioritizing tax cuts skewed to the wealthy.

The environment follows the same pattern — Walker has consistently favored business and development interests over conservation. Big money has always been primary to Walker, not Wisconsin’s regular citizens, be they liberal or conservative. In that respect, Walker was Trumpian before Trump, and the environment fits that master narrative.

But back to Daulton, and what she represents.

“Many of the people in our group have worked their entire lives for this conservation legacy in Wisconsin and believe in the land ethic and sound scientific management,” she said. “And many were thinking that, before Trump, ‘At least we have the federal government.’ ” But she said the naming of Pruitt was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

At that point, Daulton added, “I said to myself, ‘Well, I think I have to get off my tush and do something.’ ”

To me, that’s the key takeaway.

Most people lack the professional chops to contribute environmental science like Daulton and her colleagues, but given the profound stakes and the sense of futility so many feel in this bleak political landscape, others would do well to whine less and do more.

And, you know, get off our tushes.

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