Remind Mr. Chairman that He Serves Wisconsin’s Public
One never knows what will set off the three silver-haired drama divas on Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board, the seven-citizen, governor-appointed committee that sets DNR policy.
On Feb. 15 we saw NRB vice chair Greg Kazmierski wreak ham-fisted havoc on the DNR’s science-based wolf-management program by doubling the number of wolf permits. And then Feb. 24 we saw NRB sidekick Terry Hilgenberg and chair Frederick Prehn ambush Wisconsin Conservation Congress chair Tony Blattler after he delivered the WCC’s input for the upcoming statewide hearings. Those online hearings start April 12 at 7 p.m., and last 72 hours.
The WCC, you’ll recall, is a statutorily sanctioned group of elected advisers on issues involving Wisconsin’s natural resources. The 360-person WCC consists of five delegates from each of our 72 counties. Their role, as defined by law, is to advise Prehn, Kazmierski, Hilgenberg and the other four NRB members on “how to responsibly manage Wisconsin’s natural resources for present and future generations.”
It’s time the Three Divas read the official wording on the DNR’s website: The WCC “accomplishes (its role) through open, impartial, broad-ranged actions. The vision … is to strengthen and enhance our ability to gather and convey the wisdom and influence of Wisconsin citizens in (forming) natural resource policy, research, education, and conservation.”
That means all of our natural resources deserve the WCC’s input, be it air, land, water, forests, marshes and woodlands; or fish, fowl, reptiles, amphibians, insects and mammals. That’s why the WCC has 24 subcommittees for studying these varied issues.
But seconds after Blattler presented the WCC’s 31 advisory questions for April’s hearings, Hilgenberg blasted him. Reading a prepared statement, Hilgenberg said the WCC should not ask citizens to weigh in on a U.S. Congress bill to reduce the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels.
Hilgenberg, a Shawano realtor, said: “I’m disappointed the (WCC) has … deviated from their core mission of advising on the hunting, fishing, trapping issues in Wisconsin, and decided to participate in world issues like the energy independence of our country. This is a very dangerous move … which potentially (hurts the WCC’s) voice, influence and impact. Our board needs your focus on your core mission. I challenge the (WCC) to stay in their core mission.”
In other words, WCC, stick to your knitting.
Blattler, the WCC’s newly elected chair, looked strained and confused. That’s partly because this was a “virtual” meeting—with the Board, DNR staff, and speakers attending through home computers. Unfortunately, Hilgenberg’s garbled voice sounded as if he were speaking through a string he Scotch-taped to a tin can.
But Blattler was also probably stunned by Hilgenberg’s disrespect. Nowhere in the WCC’s mission statement is it restricted to only hunting, fishing and trapping. Still, Blattler politely said he understood Hilgenberg’s concerns, but reminded him that the WCC hears from many citizens at the hearings, and some raise issues beyond hunting, fishing and trapping.
Prehn, a Wausau dentist and owner of the Prehn Cranberry Co. in Tomah, asked Blattler to summarize the WCC’s mission statement, but then resumed: “I understand people have a right to ask, but you also have to look at your mission statement and see if it really applies to that kind of question.”
Again Blattler conceded the WCC could have handled things differently, but explained that some details of citizen-written resolutions were tough to sort out during “virtual” meetings the past year. Blattler said if the WCC’s committees had met in person, “a lot of the exact things would have been discussed in detail to see if it’s part of our mission.”
Prehn chuckled sarcastically and said: “Tony, people have blamed a lot of things on COVID, but that’s stretching it.”
Blattler then showed remarkable restraint for a man twice disrespected by people who should know his group’s mission but don’t. And even though the Wisconsin NRB chair had also called him deceptive, possibly a liar, Blattler simply said, “Message heard.”
Two days later Blattler wrote to Prehn and the other six NRB members. He told them their public rebuke was inappropriate, and reminded them the WCC’s mission goes beyond their hook-and-bullet false assumptions: “Many times the WCC has weighed in on ‘environmental’ issues,” Blattler wrote.
Welcome, Mr. Blattler, to Chairman Prehn’s fiefdom, the place where respect, public discourse, and professional courtesies die regularly, often in agony. Consider:
-- In May 2019 Prehn delivered a 10-minute, red-faced, repetitive rant during the Board’s monthly meeting after DNR administrator Marc Kenyon updated them on habitat work in the Central Sands. Prehn called the region a “weed-fest,” and said DNR efforts the past 15 to 20 years to help Wisconsin’s threatened prairie-chicken population were a disaster.
-- In October 2019 Prehn reversed without public comment a joint DNR/NRB agreement with WCC representatives that required in-person deer registration for CWD monitoring in the Eau Claire-Chippewa Valley. When the WCC’s committee chair, David Zielke, wrote to Prehn expressing the group’s “disgust” with Kazmierski’s role in killing the agreement, Prehn sent Zielke a say-nothing form letter about citizen participation.
-- In June 2020 Prehn ridiculed fellow NRB member Marci West during the Board’s monthly meeting for accurately reminding Kazmierski that the Northwoods’ deer habitat has declined the past 25 years.
Meanwhile, fellow NRB members and DNR Secretary Preston Cole sat mute during those abuses, leaving their colleagues to twist in Prehn’s hot air. One wonders why Cole, whose signature was on those Central Sands and CWD plans, can’t diplomatically ask Prehn for names and specific recommendations when he calls DNR work a “debacle” and claims he “talks to farmers who know how to restore prairie chickens.”
Granted, it’s no fun confronting a mercurial man who, through himself and family, has given nearly $52,200 in campaign contributions since 1994 to GOP lawmakers, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s online data. That total includes nearly $21,940 to former Gov. Scott Walker, who appointed Prehn to the NRB in 2015.
Cole, a former NRB chair himself, should tactfully remind Prehn, and the entire NRB, that they’re supposed to be the public’s conduit for input on natural-resources policy. Likewise, representatives like Blattler deserve respect when appearing on the public’s behalf.
NRB members voted Prehn their chairman earlier this year. It’s time they address his tantrums and hold him to that post’s adult standards.
Representatives of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress and others who appear before the Natural Resources Board deserve respect from the NRB and its mercurial chairman, Frederick Prehn. — Patrick Durkin photo