Gov.-elect Tony Evers provided vital insight into his approach to governing when he tapped Preston Cole to head the state Department of Natural Resources. A forester by training, and a skilled administrator of environmental and public-works projects, Cole is literally known as “the tree guy.”
He got that title years ago because his knowledge of Wisconsin’s woodlands and plants was so great that anyone who had a question about trees was directed his way. Over time, however, it became clear that he knew just as much about protecting air and water, balancing the interests of farmers and their neighbors, and finding common ground for rural and urban places in a rapidly changing state.
A member of the state Natural Resources Board who was appointed in 2007 by former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, and someone who has served as the board’s chairman under outgoing Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, Cole has a proven track record of working across party lines to do the essential work of an agency charged with conserving and managing Wisconsin’s precious natural resources.
Cole also has a sense of mission when it comes to this work. In an interview several years ago, he stressed this fact: “I have a strong conservation ethic deeply rooted in the traditions that my parents taught me — to leave the land better than I found it.”
This regard for the land and for conservation makes Cole an ideal fit for the DNR, an essential state agency that takes as its mission a charge: “To protect and enhance our natural resources: our air, land and water; our wildlife, fish and forests and the ecosystems that sustain all life. To provide a healthy, sustainable environment and a full range of outdoor opportunities. To ensure the right of all people to use and enjoy these resources in their work and leisure. To work with people to understand each other’s views and to carry out the public will. And in this partnership consider the future and generations to follow.”
Many Republicans, including Walker, hailed the pick.
Unfortunately, there were a few legislative Republicans, such as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, of Rochester, and state Rep. Scott Krug, of Nekoosa, who seemed to be upset that Cole is from Milwaukee. Vos griped generally about the fact that Evers’ initial Cabinet picks were Milwaukeeans, and Krug complained specifically that it was “not very encouraging” to have a DNR secretary from the state’s largest city.
These continual efforts to divide Wisconsinites by region, and along urban-versus-rural lines, are embarrassing. To suggest that a Milwaukeean is somehow an inappropriate pick to head the DNR reveals a deep ignorance about the state and its values.
Ultimately, we expect that Vos and Krug will join other Republicans — including Walker and the former DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, who has been effusive in her praise of Cole — in respecting Evers’ choice.
Preston Cole is a Milwaukeean, and he has served the city well — as the city forester, environmental-services superintendent, director of operations for the Department of Public Works, and commissioner of the Department of Neighborhood Services. He’s been a champion of efficient management, fiscal responsibility and transparency for decades. It’s no surprise that he has been awarded the National Urban Foresters Medal of Honor, and that he has earned wide recognition for his work to get young people in cities across the country engaged with forestry and conservation.
Cole grew up on a small farm, joined Future Farmers of America as a youth, and remains an active outdoorsman. He hikes the state parks. He hunts ducks, geese and pheasants. Few officials have embraced the whole of Wisconsin as warmly and well as Cole did as chair of the Natural Resources Board. As DNR secretary, he will extend that embrace.
Cole will do this as a leader who recognizes the “Wisconsin Idea” values that have historically defined the DNR. He shares the governor-elect’s determination to reassert the role of science in decision-making at the agency. Cole will do this by respecting the expertise of DNR staffers and welcoming their advice. As he says: “I will represent those natural resource managers, those scientists to give them the life that they so deserve to add value to the conversation on natural resource management.”
That’s precisely the message that should be coming from the DNR secretary. Tony Evers made the right choice when he tapped Preston Cole.
— The Capital Times