Now that we are more than four months into 2017, environmental law and policy practitioners have undoubtedly seen coverage predicting that the field of environmental law will experience rapid change, scrutiny, and an uptick in litigation.
Regardless of whether or how these changes play out, looking back on our state’s distinctive conservation history seems particularly timely in light of Earth Day 2017 – Saturday, April 22 – an annual celebration that began in 1970 thanks in large part to U.S. Senator and Wisconsin Governor Gaylord Nelson.
Historically a Leader
Wisconsin stands as a historical leader in implementing keystone environmental laws and in advancing a conservation ethic that ubiquitously continues to impact decision-makers, scientists, and advocates. Regardless of where we live in Wisconsin, our communities are shaped by past leaders like Aldo Leopold, rightly a “father” of ecology and conservation. Today, it’s hard to imagine a field of law that’s more necessarily connected to science and data than environmental law and policy.
Following Aldo Leopold, Republican administrations in Wisconsin created two truly innovative governmental bodies: the Office of the Public Intervenor and the Natural Resources Board (NRB).
The Office of the Public Intervenor, 1967-1995
The Public Intervenor was created in 1967 as a political compromise in response to the merging of the Wisconsin Department of Resource Development and the Wisconsin Conservation Department. The original constituency of the Public Intervenor’s office was the conservation community, which expressed concern about the loss of a separate conservation department with independent oversight of wildlife and fisheries resources.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) housed the Intervenor’s Office through the mid-1990s, and this independent DOJ litigation ‘arm’ was almost completely unique to Wisconsin.
The Natural Resources Board
The Office of the Public Intervenor was shut down in 1995, but Wisconsin still sees local or citizen-driven conservation decisions through the NRB. Wisconsin Stat. section 15.34(1)-(2) created both the NRB and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and the statute states that the DNR exists “under the direction and supervision” of the NRB.
Seven governor-appointed board members are “appointed for staggered six-year terms.” Readers can learn more about the NRB and its current members on the NRB website.
The Conservation Congress
Wisconsin’s Conservation Congress is another statutorily-created body that many Wisconsinites may not know of or fully understand. Wisconsin Stat. section 15.348 states that “[t]he conservation congress shall be an independent organization of citizens of the state and shall serve in an advisory capacity to the natural resources board on all matters under the jurisdiction of the board.”
In part, the Conservation Congress and NRB were formed as part of a Republican administration’s agenda to avoid centralized power at the DNR, and to keep conservation decision-making in the hands a broader conservation community throughout the state.
The Spring Hearings
The Conservation Congress annually holds the Spring Fish and Wildlife Rules Hearings to vote on a broad array of issues, ranging from hunting and fishing, to water quality and quantity. All Wisconsin residents have access to the Congress by participating in the spring hearing or through their local Conservation Congress delegates, and many issues up for vote stem from resolutions submitted by citizens.
The hearings are public, and held simultaneously in each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, from the most rural to the most urban, to allow comment and input on proposed rule changes and NRB and Conservation Congress advisory questions. At this year’s hearings, held April 10, more than 5,000 people participated.
Looking Back Together
Whether you look forward to the future of environmental law with optimism, concern, or a mix thereof, we can all hopefully look back together with respect and appreciation for the history of conservation and environmental law in Wisconsin.
Author's Note: Thanks to Tom Dawson for an interview providing information used in this post. Dawson served as a public intervenor 1976-1995, as an assistant attorney general with the Wisconsin Department of Justice, and as director of the department’s Environmental Protection Unit. He retired in 2016.