The Prehn Decision: Backdrop to a Breakdown

WI Green Fire, July 6, 2022

Curt Meine

The following piece was written by Curt Meine, a conservationist and writer in Sauk County, and a member of Wisconsin’s Green Fire Science Council. In this opinion piece, Curt describes the implications of a recent Wisconsin Supreme Court decision to allow Fred Prehn to remain on the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board, despite his term expiring in May 2021. 

On July 1, the Wisconsin Supreme Court handed down a decision allowing Fred Prehn to remain on the seven-member Wisconsin Natural Resources Board that oversees the state Department of Natural Resources. Prehn’s six-year term expired on May 1, 2021. The case came before the court because of Prehn’s unwillingness to step down, and the state senate’s refusal to hold hearings on Governor Evers’ nomination of a successor. Now the court’s sharply split decision has added yet another chapter to the sorry story of deepening division that has marked Wisconsin conservation politics for a generation.

Wisconsinites of all political bents, stripes, and backgrounds have a stake in the integrity and legitimacy of those who oversee our natural resource policies and administration. Moreover, the court decision involves far more than the fate of the Natural Resources Board. We are all harmed when basic fairness, decency, and commitment to the public interest become victims, once again, to unchecked political power.  The decision contributes to the further breakdown of our system of representative government. As Justice Rebecca Dallet stated in her dissenting opinion, the decision “steers our state’s government directly into disorder and chaos, threatening the fragile separation of powers central to its functions.”

For all these discouraging reasons, the court’s decision made state and national headlines. However, neither the decision itself nor media coverage of it has provided the basic historical context of the matter at hand.  That context is not only relevant, but essential to understanding, alas, the depth to which partisan interests have dragged Wisconsin’s legacy of leadership in natural resource policy and management.

In July 1927, Wisconsin’s leading conservation advocates, within and outside state government, came together to establish the Wisconsin Conservation Department (WCD), forerunner to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). In a time of depleted forests, decimated wildlife populations, and widespread degradation of the state’s soils and waters, the need for reform and coordination of Wisconsin’s scattered conservation efforts was urgent. The effort was led especially by the Izaak Walton League, at the time the largest conservation organization in Wisconsin, with some 12,000 members in a hundred chapters around the state. The leaders of the movement included Milwaukeean Haskell Noyes, Door County state assemblyman Frank Graass, Horicon Marsh champion Lou Radke, and Madison attorney William Aberg. And Aldo Leopold.

The 1927 legislation creating the department instituted a governing Conservation Commission of six citizens, nominated by the governor and approved by the legislature. They were unpaid and appointed to staggered, overlapping 6-year terms. (In a compromise, three commissioners were to come from northern Wisconsin, and three from the south). The commission, in turn, selected the secretary of the department.

The aim of this arrangement was to prevent any one governor from having undue influence on department administration (especially given that Wisconsin governors then served two-year terms).  It favored continuity in policy—a necessity, given the need for long-term perspectives, programs, and investments in restoring and stewarding the state’s natural assets. It buffered the commission, secretary, and department from the direct influence of powerful special interests, the bane of previous conservation efforts in Wisconsin. It reinforced the independence of a well-qualified professional department secretary. The bill explicitly called for the commission to choose “a person having executive ability and experience, special training and skill in conservation work.” These provisions reflected Leopold’s innovations when he worked toward similar policy reforms in New Mexico before relocating to Wisconsin in 1924.

The commission structure remained largely intact through the 1967 reorganization that combined the old WCD and Department of Resource Development into the WDNR. (The Natural Resources Board now includes seven members). In 1995, Governor Tommy Thompson and a compliant state legislature did away with the independence of the WDNR secretary through the budget process, making it an appointed cabinet position. Governor James Doyle, when presented with the opportunity to reestablish the independent secretary in the 2000s, chose not to.

The administrative structure first put into place almost a century ago endured far-reaching changes in society, in the political parties, and in environmental conditions and needs. For decades it served to make Wisconsin a national and global leader in effective conservation and environmental policy. It was great while it lasted.

The commitment to fair process, science-informed policy, and respectful debate, once shared across Wisconsin’s political aisle, has been eroding for a long while. And now we see how rank craving for political power can exploit weak spots in even the strongest policy-making framework, leaving authorities unaccountable. With the state supreme court’s decision, the failure of checks-and-balances within state government advances. In the absence of leadership in the halls of power, the only remaining recourse is in our hands: our votes as Wisconsin citizens. And even the vote, of course, has been deeply compromised by the same forces of hyper-partisanship.

And so, as another election season ramps up, we need to recall the words of another voice of Wisconsin’s tradition of political reform. In 1913, then Senator Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette wrote: “We are slow to realize that democracy is a life; and involves continual struggle. It is only as those of every generation who love democracy resist with all their might the encroachments of its enemies that the ideals of representative government can even be nearly approximated.”