Small ball vs. long ball on environment

Bald_Eagle-27527One of the advantages of being an old cocker is that you can bear witness to what’s worked over time and what hasn’t. With three-quarters of a century under my belt in Wisconsin, I have been privileged to witness some incredible environmental successes.

At a time when Republican leaders in the state are playing small ball on environmental issues, a long-term perspective provides some balance. Here are some advances I’ve witnessed that should make every Wisconsin citizen proud and appreciative of past leadership:

• Our Rivers – I was 16 in 1953 when I jumped into the Fox River in De Pere for a swim and some very bad stuff floated by. I jumped out, never to return until about 10 years ago. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of many civic, business and government leaders, the Fox is swimmable and fishable gain. It will get even better when the world’s largest dredging project to remove PCBs between Menasha and Green Bay is finished. The Milwaukee River was a sewer as it flowed through West Bend when I moved there in 1969. It is also swimmable and fishable again. Several dams have been removed to improve flow. We as citizens thought big, worked consistently on river improvements, and it has worked.

• Our Eagles – DDT poisoning had virtually eliminated that spectacular species from the state. Gaylord Nelson led the way in 1966 to banning that pervasive chemical at the same time our waters and air were being cleaned up. A few years back, my wife and I counted 21 eagles on a trip down the St. Croix River. They have now migrated as far south as Washington and Ozaukee counties. Further, other species have been restored or introduced that I never saw growing up, such as Sand Hill Cranes, pelicans, Peregrine Falcons, turkeys and cormorants. Friends tell me they are seeing sea ducks in the middle of Lake Michigan. Wolves, love them or hate them, are back. Supporters of the heroic elk and Whooping Crane restoration projects are fighting the good fight. We thought and acted big, persisted, and the results have been wonderful.

• Our Forests – My great-grandfather Ludwig and his son Burdette were part of the pillage of the Pinery in the second half of the 1800s in Wisconsin. They and other lumbering men thought the sea of pines would last forever. The Torinus Lumber Company went bankrupt in 1910; the pines were gone, as were the Hemlock, whose bark provided tannin for the leather industry in places like Milwaukee. The paper companies reversed course. They sent me and other youngsters to Trees for Tomorrow Camp and began reforestation. Leaders in government and the land trust movement helped. Today there are more forested acres in Wisconsin than before Ludwig arrived here from the Ukraine in 1854. We saw the light, took a long-term view, and it has been a huge success.

• Sewage Dumps – Decades back, as many as 50 raw sewage dumps from Milwaukee alone were inflicted on Lake Michigan during heavy storms. We taxpayers spent $2 billion on the deep tunnel project, and the dumps have been cut to a couple per year. Leaders in government and the land trusts are working to preserve and enlarge the sponge areas on the four branches upstream. Work has started in several Milwaukee neighborhoods to separate the combined storm and sanitary sewer systems. The goal is zero dumps. We thought big, spent big, and it’s working.

• Air Pollution – From the 1970s to the 1990s, Southeastern Wisconsin had so many exceedances of federal air standards that we were designated a severe non-attainment area. Thanks to tighter industrial controls, reformulated gasoline and testing of all cars, we are now down to none or just a few per year. Even with tighter ozone standards, we have been designated an attainment area for ozone. In contrast, executives from our company who travel to China say they have never seen the sun in Beijing. We have launched huge initiatives; imagine if we hadn’t.

Against a backdrop of remarkable environmental successes, which have greatly improved our state’s economy and quality of life, the Republicans in control in Madison cite budgetary reasons for cutting back on environmental programs.

We can all understand fiscal prudence. But the sad part of their stance is the absence of a positive agenda for the environment. There are no visionary comments about improving the environment further while still building the economy.

It is so obvious that our soils, waters and air are not only esthetic, recreational, health and spiritual assets, but also economic assets of major proportions. They just have to be conserved.

Polls show that more than three-quarters of our citizens believe that to be true and are willing to invest in environmental advances. Where’s the vision from our political leaders?

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  • Chris Crosse

    Well done John.

    We cannot emphasis the environment enough. Many of our fellow Wisconsinites take the tremendous strides we have made for granted. The bounty we enjoy today are the result of bold choices followed up by bold action. I believe one of the main reasons we don’t see that kind of visionary thinking today is because their has been a false equivilency introduced into the debate. That false equivilency is that we have to focus on the economy at the expense of the environment vs. working on the economy and the environment. Thanks for bringing this to the forefront.

  • Michael Drescher

    Well said John. And a great reminder of how far we have come, I remember those days as well.
    Thank you!

  • Bud Reinhold

    Wisconsin’s environment is equal to any other economic asset our state has. Thank you for the perspective.

  • Tom Strini

    John — they just don’t care. Walker has put DNR leaders in place based on their willingness to look the other way when businesses dump pollutants and developers fill wetlands. Lax environmental enforcement is a carrot in the administration’s quest to poach manufacturers from other states. To the Wisconsin GOP, environmental concern is sissy stuff.

    • Scott

      So do you also condemn the Democrats who have been running the City Of Milwaukee forever for the constant irresponsible dumping into Lake Michigan or do they get the typical Hypocritical pass as they usually do?

  • jhinwb

    I believe the globalization of commerce and trade has merit and certainly some problems, one being the globalization of pollution (“never seen the sun in Beijing”). This will catch up to us sooner than we think, and who knows whether catastrophic climate change will make our grandchildren less likely to have anything like we do now, mostly because of greed. Why don’t our trade agreements include anything much related to poisoning our world. Just because the outhouse isn’t right next to the well doesn’t mean…..and our multinationals are well aware of this.

  • James Lenfestey

    So true, John – except for your final interrogative, as sadly it is only Republican politicians who have the anti-environment agenda, not Democrats – a major policy distinctionl, Sen. Johnson and Rep. Sensenbrenner particular obtuse on the environment. Once that was not the case. In my adopted state of Minnesota, Republican Gov Elmer L. Andersen was a far-sighted environmental leader, and was Gov. Milliken in Michigan. Nationally, Nixon signed the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, I believe, and created the EPA, now the bete noir of national Republicans, but it was those acts, including Kennedy’s ban on DDT (after reading Rachel Carson) with tough enforcement provisions more than any others actions, local or state, that cleaned up Wisconsin’s air and waters and returned the predator birds (See the 200 or so White Pelicans at the DePere dam right now, a thrilling addition to your list). The Green Bay of our youth was once Like Beijing, one of the most polluted cities on America. Starting post-war, the League of Women Voters took on the local business leaders to clean the air – my mother on one side with Margaret Ickes (your mother-in-law) under the leadership of Mildred Smith, on the other my father a coal merchant and all the paper companies. The League won, forcing from below what may have been the first air pollution municipal ordinance in the country. Good news – no more visits to eye doctors to take cinders out, 90% of all eye appointments before the ordinance – and the economy did not collapse -the price of a roll of toilet paper is the same or less today, adjusted for inflation. Green regulation and green economics go hand in hand. Sadly, the current crop of Republican politicians don’t have the historical memory to see that.

    • JohnTorinus

      We’ren’t the grand dames of Green Bay tough cookies! Loved them.

  • Lodi, Wisconsin

    To your credit, I think that you as a locally-based business leader understand the connection between quality of life – including quality of the environment – and economic growth. When business managers, leaders and owners live long-term in the same state and communities where they work, they understand the need and desire for a well-connected environment and will keep their companies here long-term. I did an interview a few years back with a plastics manufacturer up north that stayed in Wisconsin precisely because the company owner literally liked to hunt on the same grounds as one of the factories.
    Unfortunately, with more out-of-state corporate ownership and transient management, the appreciation for the environment disappears. I personally knew a large plant manager for an international food producer who lived in Madison but had no clue of the abundant natural resources just a few miles from his home. He wasn’t a bad person – he just never lived in the same community for more than 2-3 years in his corporate structure and thus never came to appreciate local resources. When people like him wanted to appreciate “the environment” they could arrange for a trip to Yellowstone or some other exotic locale.

    • JohnTorinus

      Very insightful observation. Being rooted adds commitment.

  • David Newby


  • Scott

    John, your point about thanking the use of reformulated gas is a total joke. Ask any service technician at an auto repair shop or someone who repairs small engines what they think of this garbage fuel. Not only does it harm the engine but it does absolutely nothing for the environment. In fact using the stuff lowers the gas mileage on the vehicles which in turn results in the consumer having to buy more of it.

    Your other point about the City of Milwaukee only dumping a couple times a year is once again a total false statement on your part. Anytime there is a heavy rainfall you can bet there will be a turd dumping into Lake Michigan. Most people will not know of this because the media barely reports it but it definitely is happening. I realize you and the rest of the posters on here love to ridicule the Republicans on this but I can definitely point out where the Democrats are responsible for irresponsible behavior on our environment.

  • Roy Thilly

    Excellent column, John. Clean water and clean air are invaluable. The next question is what should a positive environmental/natural resource protection agenda look like that takes a long view and recognizes legitimate fiscal concerns. I would suggest strictly enforcing the phosphorus rules recently put in place to protect our lakes and rivers should be a high priority. The health of our water resources is key to our economic and personal well-being. Second, we need to implement an energy policy that modernizes our infrastructure, fosters substantially greater conservation and efficiency in the use of energy and gradually but decisively lowers our dependence on fossil fuels. Such a policy would pay great dividends in the future, particularly when, not if, the issue of climate change is addressed federally. It is smart to prepare and imprudent not to do so. Look at what our nation’s largest and best run corporations are doing to prepare. Denial is an economic dead end. Strong conservation and efficiency measures, including bringing our building codes up to date, are by far the least expensive way to meet growing energy needs. Lots of large companies like your’s clearly know this, but there is a lot left to do. We continue to operate a number of quite old and relatively dirty coal-fired power plants that should be retired in a measured way, given the cost and environmental benefits of natural gas and improvements in renewable resource technologies. Those retirements would address mercury, SO2, particulate and NOX issues, as well as lessen that Wisconsin’s considerable exposure to future carbon regulation costs. Rather than cutting stewardship funds, we should maintain that funding and do a better job at targeting funds for watershed and key wildlife habitat protection. Finally, we need to take steps to substantially improve public transportation alternatives in ways that make commuting and traveling within Wisconsin convenient and less expensive. None of these policies are radical. They would be smart.

    • JohnTorinus

      That’s the kind of forward thinking that we are not getting from political leaders, especially the GOP.

      • Scott

        Whats wrong John, you only respond to comments you agree with? I realize you can’t defend the position that I pointed out but if you are going to print your free editorial opinions in the daily newspaper every Wednesday make sure you have all the facts to back them up.