Walker Budget Proposal Threatens Wisconsin's Environment, Public Safety, and Economy

Governor’s Budget Threatens Wisconsin’s Natural Resources, Public Safety, and Economy

Governor Walker’s proposed state budget (AB 21 / SB 21), released February 3, is bad news for Wisconsin’s air, water, wildlife, and the many economic engines that depend on maintaining sustainably managed, intact natural resources.   Many of the changes to the DNR threaten Wisconsin’s tourism industry, which supports 185,495 jobs and contributes $17.5 billion to our economy each year. Click here to take action against these changes.

The Sierra Club is dismayed to see the proposed cuts to 66 positions at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) – especially 33 related to science, education and research.  It is dangerous to cut science staff at a time when Wisconsin’s natural resources face daunting, unprecedented threats, from climate change to the proposed open-pit iron mine to the proliferation of frac sand mines to Chronic Wasting Disease and more.  Having in-house scientific experts at the DNR is the foundation of sound management and policymaking.      

Reducing the authority of the Natural Resources Board concentrates even more power in the Executive Branch, further reduces opportunities for citizen participation on natural resource issues affecting their daily lives.  This change would also reduce the authority of the Conservation Congress, the statutory body created by Aldo Leopold and others in 1934, in which citizens elect delegates to advise the Natural Resources Board on managing Wisconsin's natural resources, by making the Congress an advisory board to an advisory board (the NRB).  Removing NRB authority would also make the issue of restoring an Independent Department of Natural Resources Secretary impossible.  Even more troubling, this change would also give the DNR Secretary, currently Cathy Stepp, a former developer and State Senator with an abysmal environmental voting record, sole authority over public land sales and purchases.

The Governor’s budget also eliminates cost-effective capacity grants to nonprofits.  This includes funds for groups like the Wisconsin County Forest Association, the River Alliance to coordinate volunteer river basin groups or funds for maintaining the Ice Age Trail.  Without support, volunteers will be expected to plan, organize, and administer these projects on their own.

You can send a personalized message to Walker's finance committee urging them to reconsider these actions. Click here to take action!

You’ve probably heard about Governor Walker’s proposed devastating $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System and the $5 million cut to Wisconsin Public Radio and Television that jeopardize higher education and independent news for citizens throughout the state.  But you may not have heard as much about proposed budget cuts that jeopardize children’s understanding of and connection to nature.  It eliminates funding for our state parks, proposing to fill that gap through user fee increases that have the potential to create real barriers for low income families seeking to explore the outdoors.  It also eliminates the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education (WCEE) and Wisconsin Environmental Education Board (WEEB), established in 1990 to provide environmental education programs in pK-12 schools and in communities across the state. 

We also have grave concerns about the Governor’s proposal to freeze Stewardship land purchases until 2028. Wisconsin's popular Knowles-Nelson stewardship program has been an effective tool for protecting over 500,000 acres of land since it was enacted in 1989.  Stewardship lands benefit all Wisconsinites by providing jobs, protecting habitat, connecting youth to outdoor learning opportunities, and recreation such as wildlife watching, fishing and hunting.  Last year Sierra Club members worked with the Natural Heritage Land Trust and other groups to purchase and permanently protect 198 acres of forest, prairie and wetlands habitat adjacent to John Muir’s Marquette County boyhood home, an acquisition that may not have happened without Wisconsin’s Stewardship program.  The Natural Resources Board purchased an easement for 21,189 acres of the 65,867 acre Brule-St. Croix Legacy Project in February to avoid losing the chance to protect this area in the event of a freeze.  This property includes globally significant pine barrens, 80 lakes, and 14 miles of streams owned by the Lyme Timber Company and the Conservation Fund.  Once complete, this project will greatly benefit Wisconsin’s $18 billion forest products industry and the 60,000 jobs it supports, as well as the local economies of Douglas, Bayfield, Burnett and Washburn counties.  Some politicians justify this freeze by bringing up Stewardship bonding concerns.  In fact, Wisconsin’s Stewardship program is an investment that greatly benefits current and future generations.  The overall cost of Stewardship for 30 years from 1990 to 2020 is less than the billions Governor Walker is proposing to spend on transportation for the next 2 years.

Speaking of transportation, the proposed transportation budget eliminates complete streets and state funds for the Transportation Alternatives program critical for bike paths and sidewalks that foster pedestrian safety and healthier, cleaner alternatives to driving.  We agree with Representative Ripp, the Transportation Builders Association and others who are concerned about the $1.3 billion in bonding being too high.  One way to reduce debt would be to delay or even cut highway projects like the expansion of lanes along the I-94 east west corridor that is slated to cost over $800 million in taxpayer dollars.  Projects like that don’t make sense given that people are driving less, and given that we could fix this section of road for a fraction of the cost and expand transit to alleviate traffic and improve safety.  Why do we have an unlimited appetite for highway spending at the same time we are making devastating cuts to public education? 

Tell policymakers today that these budget cuts are not good for anyone in Wisconsin. Click here to send a personalized message demanding them to reconsider.

The budget also affects forestry programs by moving the Division of Forestry headquarters from its central location in Madison (where all other DNR divisions are located) to a northern Wisconsin location.  It reduces oversight of the Managed Forest Land program by cutting 4 full time staff and eliminating the requirement for DNR staff to approve cutting notices filed by Cooperative Foresters.  It also directs DNR to allow Cooperative Foresters, rather than DNR Bureau of Endangered Resources staff to complete Natural Heritage Inventory (NHI) reviews to document rare or declining species, high-quality or rare natural communities, and unique or significant natural features prior to timber sales.  

Water safety is also impacted by the Governor’s budget.  It eliminates the Fertilizer Research Council and funding for its innovative manure management studies, it reduces funding to county Soil and Water Conservation Departments who work with farmers to reduce runoff pollution by $800,000 and it reduces funds for nutrient management plans by $500,000.  These cuts increase threats from water pollution caused by factory farms.  Thankfully, it also contains some good water policies, including maintaining bonding for the Urban Nonpoint Source, Targeted Management Runoff, Contaminated Sediment Removal, and Dam Safety programs, and a proposal to continue collecting ballast water fees needed to control aquatic invasive species. 

The budget cuts Recycling Grants to local communities by $4 million – an approximately 22% reduction – leaving what could be a self-sustaining program financially unsustainable.  This limits vital recycling services in local communities, and diverts tipping fees that support recycling programs to unrelated purposes.  It allocates $250,000 to the Public Service Commission to study unproven wind turbine health effects while allocating nothing to abate the known health effects of continuing to burn fossil fuels.

 It’s not too late for Sierra Club members and other citizens to call for changes to the state budget!  The sixteen member Joint Finance Committee will be working on the budget in March and April.  You can testify at one of four public hearings that will be held around the state, and you can speak out at listening sessions held by your State Assembly Representatives and State Senators.  You can write a personalized letter to the editor detailing how the budget impacts you and your area of Wisconsin.  Don’t let the state budget jeopardize Wisconsin’s future!  Please click here to speak out today.