My blog Monday on Red Fred Clark may have made you think that, among other things, I am skeptical about the value of the Progressive Era in Wisconsin politics.
Which you may think odd for a graduate of, yes, Robert M. La Follette High School in Madison. (For some reason, our sports teams were named the Lancers, not the Fighting Bobs.) Voting reforms like direct election of U.S. senators, primary elections and referenda were indeed worthwhile reforms. The ballooning growth of government — in response to actual problems, it should be noted — and the reflexive distrust of business and the “rich” (that is, anyone with more money than you) stand as progressivism’s less positive contributions to the body politic.
Another feature of the Progressive Era was the concept of “government by expert.” To a point, it makes sense to, for instance, have experts in forestry oversee conservation efforts, as Theodore Roosevelt hired. But the executive branch, which manages the government, is not the legislative branch, which is supposed to make policy.
A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel column by outdoors writer Paul A. Smith opines that the environment in Wisconsin is going to hell because of — the horror! — politics:
With an eye to scientific resource management, William Aberg, Aldo Leopold and contemporaries helped create a nonpartisan conservation commission in Wisconsin in the late 1920s. The idea was to keep politics out.
“Conservation cannot afford to enter the political arena as a candidate or partisan.” said Aberg, a Madison attorney, former chairman of the Wisconsin Conservation Commission and 2000 inductee in the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame.
Though Aberg was a prominent Republican, he was adamant about keeping politics separate from resource management.
Leopold, the lauded University of Wisconsin professor and author, expressed his contempt for politics in his book “Round River”: “I believe that many of the economic forces inside the modern body-politic are pathogenic in respect to harmony with land.” …
Oh, those robber baron capitalists … whose tax dollars pay the largest share of government costs.
Smith has for a long time advocated for returning control of the Department of Natural Resources to the Natural Resources Board and away from the governor. Gov. Tommy Thompson gave himself (with legislative approval, of course) the authority to name the DNR head in 1995, despite the opposition of Attorney General James Doyle. Gov. James Doyle, however, decided to keep Thompson’s appointment ability.
But with the “Wisconsin is open for business” mantra espoused by the administration, to say many in the conservation community are wary is an understatement.
The legislature has made others nervous by introducing and moving quickly on several measures, including AB99, a deer hunting bill that would take away the DNR’s ability to use Earn-A-Buck regulations and T-Zone antlerless deer hunts.
“At some point in Wisconsin history, our citizens decided there needed to be one more buffer between elected officials and our natural resources, and that is the NRB,” said Christine Thomas of Stevens Point, board member since 2004 and dean of the College of Natural Resources at UW-Stevens Point, speaking at last week’s board meeting in Madison. “In my opinion, this board is one of the best things about Wisconsin.”
Thomas made it clear she’d prefer the legislature stay out of conservation issues. Although most on the board argued for more aggressive herd control measures for 2011, it eventually approved a 2011 deer hunting season format without Earn-A-Buck and without an October gun hunt for antlerless deer.
“We live in a democracy, and the people will have their say at the end of the day,” Thomas said. “But when it comes time to make a tough decision, this board looks at all the information and over time has done what’s best for the resource. You don’t know what you get out of the political process.”
No, we know exactly what we get out of the political process — democracy, as messy and slow and occasionally disagreeable for your tastes as it is. What we get out of the political process is representation of the voters and taxpayers, some of whom, it may surprise Thomas to know, see, for instance, revitalizing the state’s economy as more important than following the whims of the (unelected) Natural Resources Board.
Smith quotes Herb Behnke of Shawano, who was appointed to the first state Natural Resources Board in 1968, but inadvertently identifies as a virtue something that is not:
Most DNR regulations are made by “administrative rule.” When the legislature gets involved and passes a law on a conservation issue, it makes it “virtually impossible to change it back,” Behnke said.
“I know lawmakers think they are making some lobbyists and voters happy, but it’s not the way to go,” Behnke said.
Legislation by administrative rule is in fact one of the worst features of Wisconsin government. When the Legislature passes a law, like it or not, a majority of the voters are represented, and when the voters decide they are no longer being adequately represented, legislators are involuntarily retired. (See Nov. 2, 2010.) No one in this state has voted for anyone to serve on the Natural Resources Board, and no one in this state who doesn’t work for the DNR has ever authorized the hiring of anyone in the DNR. For that matter, no non-legislator has ever approved of the state’s spending $86 million per year to take land permanently off the tax rolls in the name of conservation, either.
This is one of those cases that proves the political principle of expediency — the correct level of government to solve a problem is whatever level of government will solve the problem in your preferred way. I have yet to read an environmentalist suggest electing the Natural Resources Board, or an every-other-year statewide authorization referendum on the Knowles–Nelson Stewardship Fund-financed state land grab.
Smith decries politics in the environment:
The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is crumbling; Wisconsin has been negligent in finding a solution for the future. It will require political involvement.
But items such as deer hunting regulations are best left to the DNR and NRB.
Politicians look after their own interests, principally re-election. That’s the way the system works.
But the resource is better served when objective, well-informed people apart from the political process look after it.
In other words, pay up, you ignorant taxpayer, and shut up.
I don’t expect an outdoors writer to admit this, but conservation and the environment is one of many, many issues we entrust to our elected officials. It is important — for one thing, tourism and agriculture are two of the state’s biggest industries — but it is not the most important. It is, for instance, difficult to drive to some part of the 16 percent of land in this state that is owned by a unit of government if you don’t have a job. It’s hard to spend money on fishing or hunting equipment if you don’t have money for outdoors equipment because your state has trailed the nation in per capita income growth for more than three decades.