State News

DNR shifts government control over farm regulations

The state Department of Natural Resources, which operates state park sites and sets environmental regulations throughout Wisconsin, announced controversial new permit acquisition rules last month.

Image By: Julia Gilban-Cohen- Cardinal File Photo

Split between university-centered cities and vast dairyland, state leaders are moving to reformat environmental regulations, which protection-minded activists said they find troubling.

Last month, the state Department of Natural Resources moved to privatize permit acquisition, proposing what DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, in an opinion editorial on the agency’s website, called “assurance programs” which she explained would increase independent information sourcing, relieving the agency until the final step.

While staff rates dwindle, the DNR is crafting methods to deal with budget cuts, redirecting positions and reorienting systematic structures, inducing environmentalist’s anxieties.

Since her appointment by Gov. Scott Walker in 2011, Stepp’s actions drew criticism from conservationist groups. The Wisconsin Wildlife Federation’s executive director George Meyer told WPR he believes state lawmakers should subsidize environmental permit staff by enabling the DNR to raise permit fees.

In an effort to streamline bureaucracy, officials say the modifications are intended to steer farm and business owners to the private-sector for property evaluation.

“We want to focus on compliance rather than the paperwork part of the process,” Mark Aquino, director of the Office of Business Support and External Services told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Concerned by conflicts of interest, Harvey M. Jacobs, a professor of urban and regional planning at UW-Madison, stressed the vital balance of a strong private and public sector.

“[W]hen one gets too strong relative to the other, you begin to have mistakes and abuses,” said Jacobs.

Stepp emphasized the independent origin of the changes, promising results of only strength and efficiency, chiefly for large farm operations.

These trends have taken place over several years. Mike McCabe, then-director of the Wisconsin Democracy Project, voiced similar concerns in 2014.

“Now, [the DNR is] much more focused on accommodating businesses rather than aggressively protecting natural resources,” McCabe said at the time.

Distressed citizens and environmental groups, in the past, could petition the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to intervene in state processes. However, the coinciding election of Scott Pruitt to run the EPA—a figure with “much more state-authority approach” than his predecessors—could discourage oversight expression, according to UW-Madison associate law professor Stephanie Tai.

Along with other departmental recalibrations, permit alterations will be implemented over the next two years.

“We also intend to continue seeking feedback so we can respond nimbly if changes are needed along the way." Stepp said.

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