Ex-Wisconsin DNR head criticizes agency on policy

A former head of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has criticized the agency as “absent without leave” when it comes to policy and says conservation should be a bipartisan issue.

George Meyer, who led the DNR from 1993 to 2001, made the comments during recent interviews with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Meyer is now the executive director of the nonprofit Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

He said he sees politics playing a role in conservation with Republicans recently pushing through a mining bill to pave the way for a proposed iron mine in northern Wisconsin and awarding a $500,000 state grant to the politically connected United Sportsmen of Wisconsin. Gov. Scott Walker revoked the grant after learning the group had misled lawmakers about its tax-exempt status.

“This is a front group for political operatives in this state, and I think sportsmen are starting to catch on,” Meyer said.

Meyer, who served under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, said the GOP used to be the conservation party, “and the Democrats were less so. But that has totally shifted.”

“Most sportsmen of this state do not believe conservation should be a political wedge issue,” he added. “They believe like it was 20 years ago. Conservation should be a bipartisan issue. “

Meyer has contributed $2,350 to Democratic candidates since 2008, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign website.

State Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, described Meyer as easy to talk to, even though they disagree on policy. But he said Meyer’s criticism has hurt morale at the DNR.

“I oftentimes ask myself the question, I wonder what some of the employees who were with him in the agency years ago, how they view his comments? Because he’s not just critical of the political leadership, he has been critical of the entire department,” Tiffany said.

The Wisconsin Wildlife Federation has run the MacKenzie Environmental Center in Poynette under a 10-year contract with the DNR since 2006. This month, the DNR rejected the group’s bid to continue the partnership and said it would run it by itself.

Meyer said the switch may reflect the DNR’s intent to develop a new outdoor skills program at the center, but it may also be payback for disagreeing with DNR proposals.

“These things really get interconnected politically,” he said.