Can a presidential candidate be anti-conservation?

Governor Scott Walker

Governor Scott Walker

Here we go again with the Wisconsin Republican Party and its war on conservation.

With polls on conservation matters almost always showing three-quarters of the population in favor of conservation of water and sensitive lands, even when noted that taxes are required for programs, why would a party push an anti-conservation agenda?

When the traditions of the Republican Party, a conservative (note the root of the word) party, from Teddy Roosevelt and his national parks to Warren Knowles and Tommy Thompson and their stewardship programs, have served the GOP well, why do an about-face?

When most business people have taken on the obligation and challenge of running green companies, why would the Republicans bow to the few loud voices who don’t understand that the economy and environment can and should move forward in parallel?

When hunters and anglers are running short of lands for their sports in the face of private subdivisions of great forests, why would Republicans not listen to their needs?

When land trusts across Wisconsin and the nation are raising half of land acquisition costs as a match for public funds, with a majority of their dollars coming from business leaders, why would a party walk away from that funding leverage?

Why would a governor running for president want to project an anti-conservation image?

Yet Gov. Walker is taking just those actions in his proposed 2015-2017 state budget. I get the need to save some bucks in the face of a state budget that is way in the red because of unmanaged, exploding health costs. But I don’t get anti-conservation measures in the budget proposal that have little or no fiscal impact.

It isn’t just one measure either. It’s a number of attacks on time-honored programs that protect one of the state’s greatest assets, its natural resources, including:

• A moratorium on the Stewardship Program for protecting key natural areas, which takes the program to zero through 2028 from $47.5 million in bonding in 2014 and 2015.

• Stripping of the Natural Resource Board of its long-held oversight powers. There can be no governance philosophy here, because Gov. Walker’s budget proposes to move in just the opposite direction with another of the state’s great resources, the University of Wisconsin. There he proposes a new authority that would be empowered with great oversight powers.

• Cutting out 18 science positions in the Department of Natural Resources, pointing to a more political hand on resource decisions with less scientific under-pinning.

The Stewardship program dates back to 1961 when its predecessor, the Outdoor Recreation Act Program (ORAP), was created under democratic Gov. Gaylord Nelson. Republican Gov. Warren Knowles supported its renewal in 1967.

Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson recast the conservation initiative in 1989 as the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. His conservation leadership and his appeal to the center of the political spectrum helped to get him elected four times.

His successor, Democrat Jim Doyle, led the re-authorship of the program through 2010.

These governors were in tune with the people of the state. They knew that Wisconsin people, Democrats, Republicans and independents, love the Wisconsin outdoors, whether for hunting, fishing, trapping, boating, biking, hiking, skiing, bird watching, and many other uses. It’s a common denominator for us Badgers– as all surveys show.

Further, the tourism, outdoor recreation, forest products and paper sectors account for more than 10% of the state’s economic makeup. Almost all of the protected lands under Stewardship are open to those uses.

Citizens/taxpayers could probably understand a cut on the program in tough budget times, as they did when the program was cut in the last budget. But these aren’t tough times any more. The economy is doing a lot better.

There are solutions or compromises available. A further partial cut might sell to citizens, but not a slash to zero funding. Instead of bonding, our leaders could find a more permanent source of continuing fund. A penny-a-pack tobacco tax was used to fund ORAP a half century ago.

So, how did Gov. Walker and his party get tin-ears on this subject? It’s hard to fathom in economic or political terms.

How does a governor run for president on an anti-conservation platform?

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  • old baldy


    Add changes to the way the very successful Managed Forest Land program is managed to your list of anti-environment/conservation initiatives in the budget bill.

  • James Lenfestey

    John – excellent column. Over here in Minnesota conservation was also once bipartisan. One of the state’s greatest modern leaders was Republican businessman and Gov. Elmer L. Andersen, a LEADER in conservation initiatives. Now MN sends 3 Repubilican climate science deniers to Congress, as denial of science, often evolution itself, seems to have become a Republican litmus test. What is the virtue of denying science? Science is the path to prosperity. My old company, Osmonics, now GE Pure Water Systems, invented numerous molecular separation processes, including separating protein and lactose sugar from whey, and recycling nickel from chrome plating, both immense moneys savers, and both created in response to environmental regulations that required ingenuity to dispose of waste, not crude dumping. Yet now Walker is dumping brains. Maddening.

    • JohnTorinus

      Gov. Walker has surrounded himself with political operatives. They care about winning elections. Not a scientist in the bunch. Only a few with business/technology chops.

  • Abett

    Thanks for this column, John. These are words that needed to be said. It is sad to think that protecting our resources are even a partisan issue…so unfortunate what is happening.

  • Bill Kurtz

    Actually Walker doesn’t have tin ears. He listens VERY WELL to the “few loud voices who don’t understand” because those “few loud voices” include his paymasters, the Koch brothers, whose fortune is based in oil. And he follows their instructions.

  • Cheryl Nenn

    When I started working in this state 13 years ago, we could get bipartisan support for most water and conservation initiatives, because clean water and beautiful natural spaces was so important to our economy and quality of life (we have an $8-12 billion water based tourism economy alone). Now, we can’t get one republican to vote for anything that is seemed as pro-environment. It’s baffling to me. No one is going to want to buy summer homes, or come up and vacation in Wisconsin if our rivers and lakes that have bad water quality, nuisance algae, etc. We are second to only Florida in number of fishing and boating licenses. If are waters continue to degrade, this is going to be very bad for the economy and hurt the natural assets that bring people here to live, retire, visit, or work. What has changed? 99% of the time, what is good for the environment is also good for business. Great article, John!

  • Wilbur

    What I see is that the legislators and governors for the past 100 years or more have been planting trees and seeds and nurturing them to protect our lands from erosion and to improve the lands to grow crops. We now have see those trees and think we can bulldoze and cut them down with impunity and no consequence to the long term health of the state and its residents. Prune and trim, weed and cut the badly planted ones, don’t destroy the entire wind break and over graze. Be prudent.

    • JohnTorinus

      It is remarkable that Wisconsin reforested so successfully after the pillage of the “pinery” from about 1860 to 1910. We now have more forested acreage in the state than ever before. Our natural resources are a great asset to this state, and we need to take care of them