Wisconsin is the home of its own conservation hall of fame, the home of the founder of Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson, and the home of John Muir.
It was the first state in America to ban DDT.
“Wisconsin has had such a long tradition in the conservation area and protecting the environment,” said Susan Hedman, the former Great Lakes Region Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Hedman says Wisconsin used to a leader in the field. But now, it’s a leader in something else.
Between 2008 and 2018, 30 states cut funding for environmental protection agencies, according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project. Wisconsin was number one, having cut 36 percent of its budget during that time.
“The politics at the state level are not generally friendly toward creating and maintaining healthy budgets
for environmental agencies,” said Eric Schaeffer, the executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project.
Pollution control staff were cut in 40 states during those ten years.
“When there aren’t enough people to measure environmental problems and bring enforcement actions and solve those problems, it means that public health is at risk in this state and that resources are not being conserved,” Hedman said.
It happened in red states and blue states, and it happened as the federal EPA was cutting 2,700 staff of its own.
Hedman said those cuts have tangible impacts here in Wisconsin.
PFAS, a manmade contaminant, has been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, and high cholesterol risks. It’s been found in drinking water supplies across Wisconsin, including in Rhinelander. Hedman said decreased staffing and funding stopped the DNR from getting in front of problems like PFAS.
“If DNR staff, particularly if science staff, had been preserved, the public health of Wisconsin residents would have been addressed in terms of these drinking water problems that we’re seeing now, I think, a lot sooner,” she said.
So how did we get here?
DNR staffing and funding have been falling since the mid-1990s.
Vacancies increased in 2002 and 2003 under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.
In his 2010 campaign, Republican Scott Walker called the DNR “out of control,” blaming regulators and
scientists. He was elected governor and promised, in his first State of the State speech, to crack down on regulations in his business-friendly administration.
“We still must change the regulatory environment in Wisconsin. From talking with families and businesses across this great state, I sense a spirit that we can grow again when our people are freed from government mandates, rules, regulations, and taxes,” Walker said in the speech.
Walker generally kept those promises. He halved the number of science researchers at the DNR, relaxed laws on mining, and did the same for rules on wetland protection.
In 2015, fines for pollution from Walker’s DNR dropped to a 30-year low.
“It’s clear that DNR’s enforcement activities and referrals to the Wisconsin Department of Justice fell off significantly during the Walker administration,” Hedman said.
After Democrat Tony Evers was elected in 2018, he declared 2019 the Year of Clean Drinking Water, a step Hedman sees as a step forward.
Even so, the funding needs to be there, according to Mel Vollbrecht, who worked at the DNR for 30 years, including in the secretary’s office.
“The last good budget I remember was [1999-2001],” she said, referencing a budgetary cycle more than 20 years ago.
But the state can return to proper protection of water, land, and air, said Vollbrecht.
“Wisconsin was historically a leader among states,” she said. “We can certainly be there again, but it’s going to take some public investment.”
View the Environmental Integrity Project's interactive map below to see how funding for environmental protection changed state-by-state from 2008 to 2018, or click here to view a full-size map.