By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators are using their new majorities to rush through aggressive reversals of environmental safeguards their predecessors championed as a continuation of the state’s outdoors heritage.
Walker and his fellow Republicans have proposed about a dozen plans conservationists say amount to an attack on the environment. Among the most contentious are plans to end a mandate on local recycling, delay tough new limits on water pollution and speeding up mining permits.
Supporters say the provisions dovetail with Walker’s “Wisconsin is open for business” mantra. Republicans are trying to save money and create jobs by streamlining regulations and letting businesses breathe, they say.
Republicans have backed Walker on many contentious issues since he took office in January. Chief among them was his contentious plan to strip almost all public employees of nearly all their collective bargaining. But the environmental push has been so hard and so fast that some in his party are squeamish that the moves sacrifice the state’s status as a national environmental leader.
“I’m worried that just like the Democrats took some of these things too far, we may go too far the other way,” said Republican state Rep. Dean Kaufert. “I hope clearer heads prevail. There has to be a balance.”
The proposals mark a departure for Wisconsin, a state that has prided itself on conservation for decades.
Renowned naturalist John Muir, conservationist Aldo Leopold and Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson all called Wisconsin home and the state’s pristine waters and verdant north woods attract millions in tourism dollars each year. Over the last 40 years Democrats and Republicans have championed conservation regulations that serve as national models.
Wisconsin was the first state to ban the pesticide DDT, the first to pass a law limiting acid rain and the first to enact an endangered species list, preceding the federal version. In the 1980s the state passed the most comprehensive groundwater protections in the country and enacted unprecedented limits on toxic air emissions. In the 1990s the state passed one of the nation’s toughest laws on substances that can destroy the ozone layer. Under former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, the state passed a mandate that required municipalities to enact recycling programs.
“I think it’s fair to say Scott Walker is leading an anti-environmental agenda that is among the most egregious in the country,” said Mike Palamuso, a spokesman for the National League of Conservation Voters. “It’s certainly a sharp contrast to what the state has seen in recent years.”
Walker’s budget called for ending the recycling mandate and pouring the millions in state aid that goes with it to economic development. A number of Republicans broke with the governor on the issue though. The Legislature’s Republican-controlled finance committee last week rejected the proposal and chose to continue subsidies.
“Recycling is that important that we shouldn’t change it and give communities struggling with their budgets any reason to scale it back,” said Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay.
The governor also proposed cutting $26 million in bonding from the state’s stewardship program, named for Nelson and former Republican Gov. Warren Knowles and delaying new restrictions on phosphorus pollution in state waters by two years.
The Department of Natural Resources adopted the limits last year, considered among the toughest in the country, in an effort to reduce ugly, foul-smelling algae blooms that sicken pets and people.
The regulations’ opponents say the rules are too costly — the DNR estimates wastewater treatment plants might have to spend $1.3 billion on equipment upgrades to reduce phosphorus discharge enough to comply — and don’t do enough to address run-off from indirect sources such as farm fields. Walker said he wants to see how other states deal with phosphorus and save municipalities money in the meantime.
Tom Sigmund, executive director of the Green Bay Metropolitan Sewage District, said the district would probably have to spend about $220 million to comply with the standards. He said waiting will allow municipalities to develop a cap-and-trade system and research cheaper ways to meet the regulations, staving off higher water bills.
“As long as we use the time to better develop some of the implementation guidelines, then I would say, yes, it’s probably not bad for our customers,” Sigmund said.
But Mike Arrowood, a 63-year-old fisherman from Lamartine and chairman of Walleyes for Tomorrow, called the delay “just flat stupid.” Stinky algae mats spawned by phosphorus pollution is a problem on Lake Winnebago, his favorite fishing hole.
“They only talk about business,” he said. “But government is in the business of supplying good water. (And) there’s no doubt it affects tourism. You go to other states and their water quality is horrible compared to Wisconsin.”
During the finance committee’s last session on the budget, Republicans removed the delays from the spending plan. The committee’s co-chairman, Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said Assembly Republicans were on board with the delays because the regulations would impose a huge burden on local governments, but the other co-chair, Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said Senate Republicans feel the changes don’t belong in the budget and should be considered as a separate bill.
Republican lawmakers also are working on a bill that would expedite permits for a new iron mine that could stretch as far as 22 miles in northern Wisconsin. Conservationists fear the bill will trade environmental safeguards for speed.
Matt Fifield, managing director of Gogebic Taconite, the company working to develop the mine, said developers want an end point in the permit process before they invest years and tens of millions of dollars building the mine.
Joe Pinardi, mayor of Hurley, a city of about 1,800 people that would sit near the mine’s eastern end, said he’s all for speeding up mine permits. He’s convinced the mine won’t harm the environment but would create hundreds of jobs for a dying region.
“I see people leaving here every day,” Pinardi said. “If the bill speeds up the (permit) process, that’s very necessary.”
Walker’s spokesman said the governor will continue to balance environmental regulations’ impact with the need to create jobs. His budget increases funding for some environmental projects, including nearly $1 million more for state park facilities and trails and $6 million more for storm water management.
Scott Manley is the environmental policy director for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business group and Wisconsin Republicans’ strongest campaign supporter. He echoed Walker’s spokesman, saying the GOP is trying to protect the environment and grow the state’s economy.
“I don’t know what kind of upside-down world the environmentalists live in,” he said. “Whether you’re talking about iron mining or whether you’re talking about delaying an incredibly expensive and ineffective phosphorus rule, those claims are completely exaggerated. As a state we need to be finding ways to make our regulations less expensive and less burdensome.”
Bob Haase, a 67-year-old fisherman from Eldorado and co-executive director of the state Musky Clubs Alliance, said Republicans don’t realize the long-term damage they could cause.
“This is the wrong way of doing business. If we allow pollution, if we don’t take care of our waters, don’t take care of our environment, people wouldn’t be traveling here and spending money,” he said. “We keep screwing around with Mother Nature, Mother Nature always wins. She comes back and slaps you.”