Where are the future leaders for Wisconsin’s natural resources?

Fred Clark, October 5, 2023

Aerial view of farm fields and forests in Wisconsin.
Contour Farming - Photo Credit Jim Klousia

On Sept. 28, three members of the Senate Committee on Financial Institutions and Sporting Heritage voted without debate to reject the nominations of four of Governor Tony Evers’ appointees to the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board (NRB).

While the committee’s action is not binding, it is unprecedented and ignores the exceptional conservation qualifications of the four appointees.

If the full Senate follows the lead of this committee and votes to reject the nominees, the NRB would only have three sitting members and would be unable to function. Such a move would leave the agency without essential guidance on any number of important issues such as PFAS contamination and wolf management. It would also prevent Governor Evers from exercising the rights and responsibilities that an overwhelming number of Wisconsin voters gave him less than one year ago in his re-election.

Wisconsin NRB members are appointed by Wisconsin governors to guide the work of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The NRB has a proud legacy, and its members reflect the values and aspirations of Wisconsin citizens for our environment. However, recent drama with former NRB members has tarnished that reputation by preventing previous nominees from being seated, disrupting important work of DNR program staff. Wisconsin badly needs new environmental leadership, especially at the NRB.

It is hard to imagine better qualified candidates to provide that leadership than the four NRB appointees who were just summarily rejected. Sandra Dee Naas, Jim VandenBrook, Dylan Jennings, and Sharon Adams are all career professionals from four corners of the state who bring an indispensable diversity of background and experience.

Sandra Dee Naas is a hunter, angler, conservationist, and teacher from Ashland. Dylan Jennings is a member of the Bad River Tribe of Lake Superior Chippewa and a communications and environmental professional. He is also the first tribal member ever appointed to the NRB. Jim Vandenbrook has spent a career as a farm conservationist, working in Southwest Wisconsin and in the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Sharon Adams brings crucial experience as an urban conservationist, developer, and community leader from Milwaukee–she is also the first woman of color ever appointed to the NRB.

A broad majority of Wisconsin voters entrusted Governor Evers to make these appointments to the Natural Resources Board when they reelected him less than one year ago. If these four candidates are not qualified, then no one is qualified.

Despite the immense range of issues that come before the NRB, Thursday’s vote appears to have been about a single issue: wolves.

With the NRB poised to approve the long overdue update to the Wisconsin Wolf Management Plan, legislative committee members appear to be doubling down on rejecting 25 years of new science and experience that the new wolf plan reflects.

The recovery of wolves in Wisconsin since being eliminated from the state in the 1950s is a conservation success story. The new wolf plan anticipates the long overdue de-listing of wolves at the federal level as an endangered species. It includes active monitoring, education on ways to reduce wolf conflicts for citizens in wolf range, respecting the rights of Wisconsin’s tribal nations around wolves, and a managed hunt that directs hunting to places where the need is greatest to reduce human-wolf conflicts.

Based on recent surveys, a broad majority of Wisconsinites, including those living in wolf range, support maintaining or increasing our current wolf population. However, a vocal minority of hunters and northern landowners have convinced some state legislators that we need to turn the clock back 25 years on wolves and significantly reduce the population. That goal risks returning the wolves to the federal endangered species list and once again removing state management.

The rejection of Governor Evers’ appointees to the NRB suggests that those legislators are willing to effectively shut down the Natural Resources Board to get their way.

There are no winners over actions like this. Instead, everyone loses. Wisconsinites certainly deserve better.

-Fred Clark

Fred Clark is the Executive Director of Wisconsin’s Green Fire, a statewide conservation organization. He is also a former Wisconsin state legislator, and a former member of the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board.

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