When Wisconsin’s new state treasurer Matt Adamczyk took office in January, his first act was to order a highly symbolic change in stationery. Adamczyk, a Republican and one of three members of the board that oversees a small public lands agency, “felt passionately” that Tia Nelson, the agency’s executive secretary, should be struck from the letterhead. As soon became clear, his principal objection to Nelson, daughter of former Wisconsin governor and environmentalist-hero Gaylord Nelson, was that in 2007–08 she had co-chaired a state task force on climate change at the then-governor’s request. Adamczyk insisted that climate change is not germane to the agency’s task of managing timber assets, and that Nelson’s activities thus constituted “time theft.” When he couldn’t convince the two other members of the agency’s board to remove Nelson from the letterhead, he tried to get her fired. When that motion failed, he moved to silence her. In April the board voted 2–1 to ban agency staff from working on or discussing climate change while on the clock. The climate censorship at the public lands agency made national headlines.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has kept his distance from Adamczyk. It is easy to see why: Walker is widely expected to announce a bid for the Republican presidential nomination. And his environmental legacy—which so far has gone largely unexamined in the national press—has reached much farther than anything the board of a tiny public lands agency could accomplish.
Since taking office in 2011 Walker has moved to reduce the role of science in environmental policymaking and to silence discussion of controversial subjects, including climate change, by state employees. And he has presided over a series of controversial rollbacks in environmental protection, including relaxing laws governing iron mining and building on wetlands, in both cases to help specific companies avoid regulatory roadblocks. Among other policy changes, he has also loosened restrictions on phosphorus pollution in state waterways, tried to restrict wind energy development and proposed ending funding for a major renewable energy research program housed at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Most recently Walker has targeted the science and educational corps at the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which has responsibility for protecting and managing forests and wildlife, along with air and water quality. In his 2015–17 budget, released in February, he proposed eliminating a third of the DNR’s 58 scientist positions and 60 percent of its 18 environmental educator positions. (The cuts were approved by the state legislature’s budget committee in May, and the budget is currently making its way through the legislature.) Walker also attempted to convert the citizen board that sets policy for the DNR to a purely advisory body and proposed a 13-year freeze on the state’s popular land conservation fund—both changes that lawmakers rejected in the face of intense public objections.
Walker’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comments for this article. But he and his allies in the Republican-controlled legislature have said that such policy shifts will streamline regulations that they say interfere with business development. Many scientists and environmental advocates as well as some conservative political and business leaders say Walker’s actions diminish the role of science in policy decisions and undermine key environmental protections that have long distinguished Wisconsin as a conservation leader.
“I just see a guy who’s afraid of the mob”
One of the biggest environmental controversies to mark Walker’s tenure came in 2013, when he signed a law paving the way for Gogebic Taconite, a mining company later revealed to be a major political donor, to build a 6.5-kilometer-long open-pit mine in the Penokee Hills region in the Lake Superior watershed. Citing a 2011 study funded by Gogebic, Walker argued the mine would bring thousands of jobs to the struggling region. Gogebic helped write the new law, which allows companies to dump mine waste into nearby wetlands, streams and lakes; doubles the area around a mine that a company can pollute; allows the DNR to exempt any company from any part of the law; and strips citizens of the right to sue mining companies for illegal environmental damage.
The new law also included a philosophical shift: Where the old law specified that mining should impact wetlands as little as possible, the new one says that significant adverse impacts on wetlands are presumed to be necessary.
Gogebic dropped the Wisconsin mining project after finding more wetlands than expected in the area, raising questions about the cost of meeting federal mitigation standards. The rewritten Wisconsin law, however, would govern any future projects.
Phosphorus pollution has been another flashpoint. In 2010 Wisconsin was the first state in the U.S. to adopt rules imposing numeric limits on phosphorus pollution, which impairs hundreds of Wisconsin waterways and can harm aquatic life and human health. When Walker took office in 2011, he argued that the rules would be too expensive for manufacturers and communities to follow and proposed to delay implementing them for two years. In 2014 he signed a law allowing polluters to postpone meeting the phosphorus restrictions if they could demonstrate that complying with the rules would pose a financial hardship. Environmental groups say that by diminishing polluters’ responsibility for reducing phosphorus discharges, the law is a step backward for water quality.
Walker has also resisted measures to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. Like many Republican governors and lawmakers, he has avoided making public remarks on climate change. But his actions paint a picture.
In 2008 before he was governor, he signed the Koch-backed “No Climate Tax Pledge,” vowing to oppose any climate legislation that increased government revenue. In 2014 he appointed a utility commissioner who said in a confirmation hearing that “the elimination of essentially every automobile would be offset by one volcano exploding,” a remark he later recanted. In February a child asked Walker what he would do about climate change if he were president. Walker’s reply: as a Boy Scout he believed in leaving his campsite cleaner than when he found it. Nevertheless, this spring Wisconsin joined 13 other states in a lawsuit challenging U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which would cut carbon emissions from Wisconsin power plants by 34 percent by 2030. (A federal court dismissed the suit on June 9.)
Walker has argued, based on a study funded by the coal company Peabody Energy, that the new rules are “unworkable” because they would be too expensive for manufacturers and residents and has implied that Wisconsin might not comply with them.
Although some conservatives in Wisconsin praise Walker’s actions, he’s attracted the ire of others, including former Republican state senator Dale Schultz, who retired from the senate last winter after 32 years in the legislature. “I think what’s going on is appalling,” Schultz says. “As somebody who thinks that should be the first thing conservatives ought to be doing is protecting our environment, it’s embarrassing. I’m a pretty pro-business Republican. But a clean environment is essential to business. This is just wholly unacceptable.”
Schultz attributes Walker and other far-right Republicans’ policy positions to the demands of wealthy benefactors, especially those connected to the energy industry. “Some days I look at Governor Walker and I just see a guy who’s afraid of the mob,” Schultz says. “He helped create it, he fosters it, but then he’s also fearful of it.”
“The term ‘climate change’ has become a red flag”
The Walker administration’s policy changes have been accompanied by efforts to weaken scientists’ role in policymaking. Even before taking office, Walker signaled his environmental agenda by appointing former Republican state senator and construction-company owner Cathy Stepp as DNR secretary, explaining that he wanted “someone with a chamber-of-commerce mentality” at the agency’s helm. Stepp, who does not have a background in science or natural resource management, had publicly derided DNR staff as “unelected bureaucrats who have only their cubicle walls to bounce ideas off of” and who thus “tend to come up with some pretty outrageous stuff that those of us in the real world have to contend with.”
Recently retired scientists spoke to a sharp shift under Stepp’s leadership. Adrian Wydeven, a wolf biologist who ran the DNR’s wolf management program from 1990 until 2013 and retired last year, points to the 2013 restructuring of all the DNR’s wildlife advisory committees. In that restructuring the agency removed university scientists and greatly reduced the number of DNR professional staff; it also gave special interest groups, such as politically influential pro-hunting groups, more slots. Wydeven says the DNR has also restricted scientists’ opportunities to speak directly with lawmakers about proposed regulations and has become deferential toward the legislature. “In the past, if the legislators were proposing anything that wasn’t scientifically sound, the DNR was much more forceful in disagreeing with the legislature and making recommendations to improve the legislation,” he says. “Now there’s much less of that.”
Although DNR researchers haven’t been explicitly forbidden from mentioning climate change (as Tia Nelson was at the public lands agency until the board yesterday amended its policy to ban staff only from engaging in advocacy on climate policy), they nonetheless describe a “chilling effect” on discussion about politically controversial subjects. In November 2010 the DNR's main climate change Web page was a rich portal containing detailed information about climate trends, forecasted impacts of climate change and DNR programs aimed at addressing the problem. The page also acknowledged that "the most renowned group of scientists working on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), stated that it is very likely [more than 90 percent probability] that human activity is responsible for rising temperatures." Today, the page contains a single paragraph describing, in general terms, a partnership with the University of Wisconsin to study the impacts of climate change and a link to the university’s project Web site.
The chilling effect is also evident in internal discussions, DNR scientists say. Sally Kefer, a land use expert who retired from the DNR in 2014, says that she encountered increasing institutional resistance to discussing climate change in the course of helping communities prepare for a warmer and wetter future. “I was being told to quit contacting the communities to determine their level of interest in having a discussion about climate adaptation,” Kefer says. “I was told to wait until they called me. And can’t I figure out a way to call it something other than ‘climate adaptation’? Can’t we just call it ‘sustainability’?” A current DNR scientist, who requested anonymity, says that the term “climate change” has become a red flag in internal grant proposals. “It’s impossible to work on natural resources without incorporating climate change in some way,” the researcher says. But “we’re less likely to cause problems if we just call it something else. ‘Environmental variability’is sort of our code word.”
Kimberlee Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, an environmental law center, works closely with DNR engineers and scientists to review and comment on pollution permits for activities such as wastewater disposal and groundwater pumping under the Clean Water Act. In the past, Wright says, the process was typically straightforward, and she and colleagues were routinely able to hammer out permits that followed the technical requirements of the law. But since Gov. Walker took office, she says, “We have not been able to settle one permit—we’ve had to litigate every single challenge. We’re often told by [DNR] staff, ‘We know you’re right, but you’re going to have to sue us because the people above me won’t let me issue a technically sufficient permit.’ That’s a really big difference—the interference in science-based decision-making is pretty complete.”
The DNR Office of Communications did not permit agency scientists to be interviewed for this article and did not make Sec. Stepp or Bureau of Science Services Director Jack Sullivan available for comment on whether the agency restricts scientists’ freedom to communicate about areas of their expertise. The department’s spokesperson, William Cosh, said in an e-mail that “When it comes to making decisions the agency remains committed to doing so by using sound science, following the law and using common sense.”
But Walker’s 2015–17 budget proposal, which called for eliminating a third of all research scientist positions and more than half of environmental educator positions from the DNR, would dramatically decrease the influence of science on natural resources policy and public outreach.
According to the state’s bipartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which provides fiscal information to the lawmakers, about half of the scientist positions Walker slated for elimination are federally funded. In March Stepp said the agency was considering subsuming remaining positions into other parts of the agency, dissolving the Bureau of Science Services altogether. Walker has indicated that he wants science to inform policy decisions on “an as-needed basis.” The agency spokesperson said the cuts do not eliminate the agency’s research capacity. “What these cuts require us to do,” he said in an e-mail, “is to better prioritize the research that our scientists are engaged in to help inform management decisions.”
DNR scientists reject that assertion. “I don’t understand how they can say with a straight face that cutting a third of the research program will not diminish their capacity to do research,” says one researcher, who requested anonymity. “We already have a pretty formalized process of prioritizing research; every two years we go through a process where they identify their research needs.”
Walker’s proposal to shrink the DNR’s scientific capacity appears to have been the brainchild of Tom Tiffany, a GOP state senator who is a longtime critic of the DNR’s science bureau. In May he confirmed on a regional radio program that he requested Gov. Walker cut the DNR scientist, educator and communications positions. Tiffany said he thinks the agency’s scientists have a wildlife management “agenda” that has driven the agency to mismanage the deer herd, curtailing sportsmen’s hunting opportunities. He has also said he believes the agency’s scientists spend too much time on controversial subjects like climate change, which he views as “theoretical.” (According to DNR records, just under 3 percent of DNR scientists’ work hours during the last fiscal year involved activities related to climate change.)
The DNR changes are “an assault on the science side of policy making,” says Curt Meine, a conservation biologist and biographer of conservation pioneer Aldo Leopold. “Wisconsin’s conservation has always been built on a broad public commitment to building and sustaining the health of the landscape and the inherent connection between a healthy economy and healthy land and waters,” he says. “We have a long record of bipartisan support for that. There’s always been tensions, there always will be tensions, maybe—but science has always been a way of talking across those divisions because everybody wants good information to make decisions. Now that legacy, fostered by the likes of Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson, is eroding away.”
Nick Ibarra contributed reporting to this article.
Siri Carpenter is a science writer in Madison, Wis. In 2011 she signed a petition calling for a recall election of Gov. Scott Walker.