It is not often that state natural resource management is scrutinized by an academic publication such as the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR). There, a May 1 headline reads: “After censoring stories, Gov. Scott Walker wants to kill off self-funded outdoors magazine.” The story reports on the Governor’s recommendation to end the nearly 100-year-old Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine published by the Wisconsin DNR. In doing so, the story offers a look into a state agency that is being dismantled by politicians who do not appear to be acting in the best interests of their state or its citizens.
According to CJR, Walker announced in February that he wanted to cease publication of the magazine because, according to a spokesman, “It is not the government’s role to duplicate what is available in the private market.” Similar to the Conservation Volunteer published by the Minnesota DNR, Wisconsin Natural Resources has 84,000 subscribers and is entirely self-funded. In other words, the magazine has a broad reach across the state, is popular and doesn’t cost the state a dime. It is difficult to imagine why any publisher would end such a successful publication. But politicians are not publishers.
Politicians (and the agency’s political appointees) began messing with the magazine in 2013 after the editor ran an insert on climate change, funded by the University of Wisconsin’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. After it was published, the editor was directed to submit the full text of all stories for review by the DNR’s leadership team prior to publication. The team subsequently nixed stories on frac sand mining, the privatization of groundwater and climate change. Even a story about the reintroduction of the American pine marten didn’t pass muster. Why? Because a map of marten habitat in Wisconsin included the site of a proposed iron mine. The editor was also instructed not to use the terms “global warming” or “climate change.”
You may wonder why the leaders of a natural resources agency wouldn’t want to share information about managing natural resources. This is especially true when you consider the above banned topics are often of intense interest to people who love the outdoors. As for climate change, a 2016 study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that warming lake temperatures are causing game fish populations in Wisconsin lakes to “flip” from walleyes to largemouth bass. The study predicts lake warming will accelerate this process. You’d think the anglers who comprise Wisconsin’s $2 billion sport fishing economy would want to know about the study and how the DNR will address changing fisheries.
Then again, they may have to learn of this information from sources other than the Wisconsin DNR. In 2015, the Governor’s budget eliminated 18 staff scientists from the agency, about a third of its science bureau staff. In the same year, fines collected from polluters dropped to the lowest level in 30 years. On another front, chronic wasting disease is expanding at an alarming rate in the state’s white-tailed deer population, to which critics claim the DNR is neither devoting adequate resources to the issue nor keeping the public fully informed about the situation.
The final decision about the magazine’s future will be made by a legislative finance committee. In the meantime, readers and others are voicing their support for it to lawmakers. The magazine received 2,300 new subscriptions and 350 renewals during the month after Walker made his announcement. The DNR secretary has said the magazine could be transferred to a private entity, although this doesn’t seem to be a feasible option. The Michigan DNR privatized its magazine during the 1990s and the publication folded five years later. Replacing the magazine with online communications and social media, another option floated by the DNR secretary, appears unworkable as well. As magazine publishers have already discovered, many folks would rather read the detailed information found in a magazine in print rather than on a screen.
If Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine survives, it is likely to be little more than a repository for press releases, public service announcements and feel-good stories, at least for the duration of the Walker Administration. Based on what I know about publishing after 30-some years in the business, that is not a recipe for continued success. What also is unlikely to change is the DNR administration’s attitude toward the state’s citizenry. CJR quotes George Meyer, a former Wisconsin DNR attorney who became the agency’s secretary and is now executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, saying of the present administration, “They don’t value providing information to the public. They don’t see the public as people they work for.” As for rank-and-file DNR staff speaking to the media, Meyers says, “They are basically gagged.”
It is easy for Minnesotans to gaze eastward and say, “Oh, those poor Cheeseheads.” But to do so is to ignore what is happening in our own state. Presently, we have a Department of Natural Resources that is widely respected for its professionalism and resource management, led by a commissioner who is a professional wildlife biologist. Yet this agency is presently under assault by what former state and outdoor champion Senator Bob Lessard has termed an “anti-sportsman Legislature.”
This Legislature wants to deny the agency funding to hire needed conservation officers, to provide public services at state parks and to manage fish, wildlife, forests and waters. On top of this, they are trying to block efforts to clean up polluted waters and prevent additional pollution. Adding insult to injury, they seek to essentially rewrite the Legacy Amendment, approved by over 70 percent of Minnesota voters in 2008, making it impossible for the state to acquire new lands for hunting, parks or habitat preservation. By the way, this is not wholly a partisan issue. Plenty of members of both parties are either culpable or remaining silent in this wholesale attack on what were once commonly held conservation values.
How much damage politicians wreak upon Minnesota’s natural and outdoor heritage won’t be known until the smoke clears at the end of the Legislative session. Even then, all we know for certain is they’ll be back at it again next year. Making political progress for land and water conservation, as well as for the outdoor-loving public has never been easy. But today, when so many politicians look upon nuts-and-bolts conservation and public enjoyment of the outdoors with unbridled contempt, doing so is despairing difficult.
So, Minnesotans, let’s look eastward to Wisconsin and say, “As bad as it is now, it can be worse.” Then let us do whatever is necessary to ensure that doesn’t happen.
By Shawn Perich