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A conversation with DNR's controversial chief

By   /   November 7, 2011  /   No Comments

By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — Eleven months ago, when Gov. Scott Walker tapped Cathy Stepp to run the state Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, it was a controversial appointment for a controversial agency.

A former homebuilder, Stepp was a fierce critic of DNR during her four-year term as a state senator, when she co-chaired the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

DNR, meanwhile, is often in someone’s crosshairs as environmentalists, business owners, hunters and farmers battle over Wisconsin’s land-use policies.

Lawmakers in the fall legislative session ended DNR’s contentious Earn-a-Buck program, requiring that hunters shoot an antlerless deer before bagging a buck. But the department remains at the center of two more controversial issues on the legislative table:

  • Special Session Senate Bill 24 , which seeks to streamline the department’s permitting processes.
  • Yet-to-be-seen legislation aimed at improving the mine-permitting process, a bill undoubtedly being watched closely by Gogebic Taconite LLC, which has leased the mining rights to 22,000 acres near Ashland in northern Wisconsin in hopes of starting an open-pit iron mine.

Stepp, in an interview with Wisconsin Reporter, described how the past several months have surprised her and her expectations moving forward.

Do you think concerns over your appointment were warranted, and how have you addressed that since you’ve been secretary?

Well, my past positions and interactions with the agency were from a completely different vantage point. I had spent three years on the Natural Resources board when Tommy (Thompson) was the governor, and that brought a citizen perspective from the regulated community. I was a homebuilder then.

And then when I ran and won for the state Senate, I served four years on that committee — the Natural Resources and Environment Committee — but also my job was to represent my constituents and to air their concerns and to try and help them settle disputes if they had with whatever agency.

And so, yes, I was very vocally critical of the agency, when I thought that they weren’t being responsive or transparent, and when I felt that they were in the way of what the business was trying to do and with unnecessary bureaucracy, instead of real, valid points.

So that was a very different role now from what I’ve moved into in this opportunity, which is to come in and lead the agency and try to change that perception and to improve our communication skills, so that we do a better job of explaining what the rules are upfront, that we reach out to the regulated community, not just when we’re talking about environmental permits, but also the sporting community to make sure everybody understands what the rules are upfront.

What do you anticipate with the mining issue?

I’ve long ago given up predicting what happens in the Legislature. When I was a legislator, I gave that up. Couple of key points — No. 1 is that mining is currently a legal activity in Wisconsin and it goes on here, so it’s not like we’re reinventing the wheel here. The second thing is, we don’t have proposal yet. There’s not a bill introduced, and so I don’t have anything to comment as far as that goes …

There was a lot of talk last week during the hearing on SB24, the bill to streamline DNR permitting, about 40 percent of DNR jobs being open.

It’s not quite 40 percent.

Back in the mid-’90s, and I’ve talked about this a couple of times, we had so-called dump trucks full of money coming into the state coffers. It’s what I call the heydays of state government time, because there was a lot of money coming in to fund a lot of programs. And back then our agency had about 3,100 full-time employees.

From the mid-’90s to today, we’ve gone down now to 2,100 full-time employees, and certainly we don’t have less work to do today than we had 20 years ago. And so we’ve got to really dramatically re-adjust how we do business and prioritize our workload, identify and define what our core deliverables are to the public who invest a lot of money into us, and make sure that we’re delivering on those services.

So are you delaying filling some of those positions as you analyze whether they’re necessary to fill?

No, it just takes a long time to fill positions in state government with the system that we have. Thankfully, the governor and the Legislature were very supportive in this last budget of this agency. And, in fact, we have been actively filling, I think it’s about 200 positions, if I remember right, of jobs that have been frozen for the last eight years.

With the hiring of the so-called deer czar and the end of Earn-a-Buck, what changes will hunters be seeing during the next couple of years?

I think the biggest change that hunters, I’m hopeful will be seeing in very short order, is more of an inclusive attitude of what their concerns are.

Have you made any missteps as DNR secretary?

I probably will leave that for your viewers and your readers to decide. There’s always things you can look back and say, ‘Ahh, maybe I could have handled that a little bit better.’ And it’s difficult. This is a really large agency. We’re spread out all over the state, so it’s not like we’re all just in this building in Madison.