MADISON – Gov. Tony Evers’ newly appointed secretary of the Department of Natural Resources delivered a message Wednesday that the Legislature needs to “step up” to help protect the state’s waters and to catch up to progress being made in other states.
Adam Payne made his first public appearance Wednesday before the Natural Resources Board, which sets policy for the agency.
In a lengthy speech, he highlighted his priorities for conservation and clean water across the state and encouraged the board to work without political influence to make decisions regarding the state’s natural resources.
Payne said Wisconsin should be leading on clean water issues, not lagging behind other nearby states like it is with PFAS management and mitigation.
“We’re going to need the Legislature to step up and work with us to make sure we are equipped to help local governments, individuals and families,” he said. “And if they don’t, how do we do the testing, how we do the monitoring?”
He highlighted the importance of safe drinking water and highlighted the governor’s State of the State address Tuesday night in which he set PFAS as one of the top priorities to address and pledged more than $100 million in funding.
“I do not see water quality for natural resources protection as a partisan issue. I don’t think it should be partisan. I think every single person in this state should expect to be able to turn on the faucet and have clean safe water. It’s a public health matter,” he said.
“We want people to move to Wisconsin and raise their families here, start their businesses here, expand their business here, expand their farm operations here, whatever it may be. We have to have clean water, that should not be partisan.”
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He also seemed to address the tension between the board and staff members over the past several years, which ultimately resulted in the cancellation of a meeting in September 2021, an action that hadn’t occurred for the board in 21 years. The board also dealt with controversy over member Frederick Prehn’s refusal to step down for nearly two years following the expiration of his term.
“We have different roles. We have similar goals,” he said. “It’s important work, communicating effectively and collaborating, making sure you get the information you need to make well-informed decisions. It doesn’t mean you can’t challenge the staff or ask for more information. But we’ve got to be working together.”
Former board chair: ‘We’re accountable to the public, not the environment’
The board elected a new slate of officers. Member Bill Smith was elected chair, Marcy West was elected vice-chair and Sharon Adams was elected secretary. The elections were held at the end of the meeting without fanfare or tension as there has been in previous years.
Greg Kazmierski, the outgoing chair whose term ends later this year, had advice for the newly elected leaders and newly seated members. He said that members shouldn’t be influenced by lobbyists or dependent on the outcomes of elections.
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He said that though everyone wants clean water, the board has to find the balance in its decisions regarding water and make sure that solutions are affordable.
“I think it’s really important for this board to understand that we are accountable to the public, not to the environment, not to natural resources, we are accountable to the public,” he said. “So the public needs to weigh in and decide what direction we’re supposed to go for this.”
New board members Sandra Dee Naas and Paul Buhr took their seats on the board, participating in voting and asking questions of staff on a number of issues, including deer hunting and the Safe Water Drinking Loan program.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first for the board since Prehn stepped down at the end of December. Prehn held over in his seat for nearly two years, denying Naas a chance to take her seat as a voting member.
The two years Prehn retained his seat, a decision that was upheld last year by the state Supreme Court, the board was fraught with political divisions between appointees of Evers and those appointed by former Gov. Scott Walker including Prehn.
Naas said she gained valuable knowledge over the past several years, observing from the audience, but is ready to get to work on the board.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how I can help move forward Wisconsin natural resources for the people in the state,” she said in an interview. “I appreciate the opportunity to be able to serve.”
Naas said she has not yet heard from members of the Senate about a confirmation hearing, which she has been waiting on since May 2021.
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Buhr, a dairy farmer from Viroqua, also took his seat for the first time Wednesday, after being appointed to fill the seat formerly held by William Bruins, who resigned from the board in December, before his term ended.
Bruins did not indicate in his messages to the Department of Natural Resources why he stepped down before his term ended.
“Every farmer wants clean water and the ability to farm and I want to represent that,” he said in an interview. “I’m excited to do it.”
Buhr has worked with dairy cattle since he was a child, graduated with an animal science degree from UW – Platteville and then owned his own farm for 45 years. The last of his herd was dispersed about two years ago, and he now tends fields of corn, soy beans and hay.
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He said he’s hoping to translate his experience as a farmer into informed decisions on issues like managing nutrients stemming from farms that can get into drinking water and cause issues for residents, such as phosphorous and nitrates. He also helps to raise awareness of the Driftless Area, and to champion preservation of the unique area.
“I’ll be more than happy to encourage more development of parks and recreation, of trails in this part of the state,” he said.
Buhr also hopes to see the board return its status as a non-political entity, focused on protecting the state’s land, air and water.
“I hope to base all my decisions on facts and reasonable deduction from those facts and I hope that we can work with all the groups that come before us in a fair manner and win their respect,” he said. “Politics will not enter into my decisions. Everyone that lives in the state wants clean water and air.”
Laura Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura.