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Journal Times editorial: DNR shouldn't abdicate its responsibilties

Journal Times editorial: DNR shouldn't abdicate its responsibilties

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The Department of Natural Resources is the one agency in Wisconsin tasked with protecting our air and water. So it’s alarming to learn that the DNR is on the verge of abdicating that responsibility in the name of making the state more business-friendly.

The DNR is closing in on a major reorganization that could send duties to other agencies and streamline regulatory work, including an experimental plan to allow some businesses to draft their own environmental permits, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Feb. 26.

Officials said the goal is to increase the DNR’s efficiency. Its responsibilities range from management of hunting, fishing and state parks to regulating large-scale farms and keeping tabs on invasive species.

“We can’t nibble around the edges,” Deputy Secretary Kurt Thiede said last month.”We have to make strategic decisions about what we are going to continue to do, where we are going to focus and be brave enough to say we are going to give certain things up.”

The Republican-led Legislature is no friend to the DNR. It has cut the agency’s funding and advanced a series of measures to limit DNR powers in recent years.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, have grown more dissatisfied, pointing to the drop in enforcement activity, reductions in scientific staff and concerns that the DNR isn’t doing enough on matters like groundwater protection, water pollution and oversight of large farms.

Thiede emphasized that environmental protections won’t be weakened and the DNR would still have to approve permits. “This isn’t about changing the law, not following the law,” he said.

Mr. Thiede, you don’t have to change the law to satisfy certain constituencies. You can do that by become much less vigorous in enforcement. Or by signaling an appetite for deregulation by saying “You tell us how much pollution is acceptable.”

Is a business given the latitude to write its own environmental-permit language going to be more likely to relax pollution standards on itself, or less likely? We believe that we’d hear from Corporation X that the existing standard for dumping waste into nearby streams and rivers is “outdated.”

Handing a fill-in-the-blank regulatory form over to a business surely will please that business, but it’s a disservice to everybody else.

“DNR should be commended for their efforts to streamline the permitting process to get permits issued more quickly without changing environmental standards in any way,” Lucas Vebber, director of environmental and energy policy for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business group, said in an email to the Journal Sentinel.

Except for the “without changing environmental standards in any way” part, we agree with the WMC spokesman’s assessment of what the DNR is doing.

DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, a former homebuilder, recalled at one agency listening session how an employee told her that “clean air and clean water, that those were our customers. And I said, ‘Well, the last time I checked, they don’t pay taxes and they don’t sign our paychecks.’ “

She’s got us there. The air and the water do not pay taxes.

But taxpayers also need clean air and clean water. And they need the agency tasked with protection of our air and water to actually do its job.

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