Gov. Scott Walker’s appointee to head the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources sports a strong business background and is looking to balance those interests with the environment, but some environmental advocates remain concerned.
In keeping with Walker’s promise to create more jobs, new DNR secretary Cathy Stepp aims to create an atmosphere friendly to business while keeping environmental interests in mind.
“It is the overall goal of [Walker] to create jobs in this state,” Stepp said in an e-mail to DNR employees. “And I believe that can be accomplished while preserving a healthy environment and natural resources for our quality of life.”
One way to accomplish this is to streamline the permit application process, Stepp said in a statement.
Currently, businesses looking to locate or expand in Wisconsin must be granted permits from the DNR. Permits are only given after careful review of potential environmental consequences, according to Stan Temple, University of Wisconsin professor emeritus of forest and wildlife ecology.
The process is often perceived as unnecessarily slow, but the DNR has a limited number of specialists to review permit applications thoroughly, Temple said.
Although streamlining the process will help businesses get permits, conservation advocates believe it could also harm the environment.
Representatives from the Sierra Club, the United States’ largest conservation organization, said they think streamlining the process actually means granting permission faster, which could result in a less comprehensive review process.
“[Doing this] might limit proper scientific review and the communities ability to participate in the discussion,” said Shahla Werner, director of the Sierra Club’s Wisconsin chapter.
Another concern voiced by the Sierra Club, irrespective of Stepp’s appointment, is the high turnover of DNR secretaries.
The DNR secretary used to be appointed by the Natural Resources Board, not the governor, and was not subject to term limits. During the first 40 years of the DNR’s existence, only four secretaries were selected, according to Werner.
Former Gov. Tommy Thompson stripped the Natural Resources Board’s ability to select the DNR secretary by making the secretary a cabinet member. The secretary is now appointed by the governor.
Werner said the change has resulted in the appointment of secretaries with inadequate experience.
Stepp’s experience consists of three years on the Natural Resources Board under the Thompson administration and co-chair of the state Senate’s Environment and Natural Resources committee, according to an e-mail Stepp sent to DNR employees.
Although she has some environmental experience, the Sierra Club remains weary of Stepp’s commitment to state ecosystems.
The Sierra Club reported Stepp voted ‘yes’ on only 29 percent of bills relating to the environment, including bills that aimed to protect air and water quality, as a state senator in 2005. In 2004, she only voted for one of 11 environmental bills.
Some say Walker may have chosen Stepp specifically for her voting record and what it means for business interests.
“Stepp’s appointment seems to be part of Walker’s broader message that Wisconsin is open for business,” said UW political science professor Barry Burden. “She will be less a defender of wilderness and air and water quality and more an advocate for streamlining the permitting process.”
Despite her critics, Stepp said she is committed to a healthy environment and sustaining Wisconsin’s natural resources because both are central to a strong economy.