Like soured milk fouling the fridge after its expiration date, dentist/cranberry farmer Frederick Prehn of Wausau is tainting Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board by refusing to step down after his six-year term expired May 1.
The seven-citizen NRB sets policy for the Department of Natural Resources. Lawmakers created the NRB in 1968 to build on traditions of its six-person predecessor, the Wisconsin Conservation Commission. The Commission’s stated purpose in 1927 was to “reform abuses that had shown up in Wisconsin conservation (and) prevalent in other states.”
The July/August 1968 Wisconsin Conservation Bulletin assured citizens the NRB was built on the same principles: “It is an unpaid citizen board, its members serving overlapping terms to ensure that programs evolve in an orderly and waste-free manner.”
Prehn, now squatting as NRB chair, is among 62 people appointed to the Board by 10 governors the past 53 years. He’s only the third, however, to ignore custom and principle by ignoring his term limit. No one pulled this stunt until James Tiefenthaler of Waukesha refused to step aside when his second term expired in January 2003. Tiefenthaler prevented his replacement, Christine Thomas, Stevens Point, from taking her seat until March 2004.
Stephen Willett of Phillips then squatted on his NRB post over two years after his second term ended in 2004. Willett prevented his replacement, Jane Wiley, Wausau, from taking her seat until January 2007.
Yep. During the NRB’s first 35 years, no Board members considered their term limits a mere suggestion or their service irreplaceable. By unofficial count, the first 44 NRB members left on or before their expiration day. Of that group, 29 were appointed by Republican governors and 14 by Democratic governors; and one, Stanton “Pete” Helland, appointed once by a governor from both parties.
But now for the third time in 17 years a Board member has deemed himself above our conservation heritage. Or so Prehn says, telling Wisconsin Public Radio, “I think the Board can use my leadership until a replacement is confirmed.”
A safe bet: When conservation historians someday scan the NRB’s long roster to pick Wisconsin’s all-time seven-person Natural Resources Board, we won’t see Frederick Prehn squatting on Hall of Fame seats held by Herb Behnke, Shawano, twice appointed by Republican governors; John Brogan, Green Bay (D); Helland, Wisconsin Dells (R, D); Richard Hemp, Mosinee (D); Harold Jordahl, Madison (D); John Lawton, Madison (D); or Dan Trainer, Stevens Point (R).
Squatter Prehn’s decision also extends an unsavory pattern, perhaps coincidental, of Republican-appointed male Board members preventing women from replacing them. Thirteen women have been appointed to the NRB since 1968. None of the first seven had to await Senate confirmation before taking their seat. Of the past six female appointees, however, three spent time in Limbo.
Wiley waited over two years and Thomas over a year, while Sandra Dee Naas, Prehn’s replacement, sits idle indefinitely. When contacted June 5, Wiley said she considered Willett a “non-person” for not honoring his expiration date. To make sure no one forgot Willett’s disrespect, Wiley sat in the gallery’s front row at every NRB meeting for roughly 30 months while the GOP-controlled Senate ignored her appointment. “I learned a lot during that time, and it paid off during the 10 years I eventually served on the Board,” Wiley said.
Prehn replaced Wiley after she stepped aside when her term ended in April 2015. Ironically, he now pretends it’s standard to squat on an expired seat until a “replacement is confirmed.” It’s not customary, of course. Newly appointed Board member Sharon Adams, Milwaukee, began serving May 1 because her predecessor, Julie Anderson, departed with poise at April’s NRB meeting.
Adams will serve while awaiting Senate action, much as countless other NRB members have served the past five-plus decades until confirmed. Wiley and Thomas weren’t so fortunate. The Senate ignored their appointments by Gov. Jim Doyle until Democrats regained control and confirmed them.
Prehn even whined in late May that he’s the victim of “character assassination” because critics called him out. Trouble is, Prehn routinely soils his reputation unassisted. He infamously scoffs at fellow Board members during discussions, ridiculed Conservation Congress chair Tony Blattler at the February NRB meeting, and belittles DNR staff and citizens testifying at Board meetings.
Prehn also violated open-meetings laws in July 2020 while rewriting antlerless deer quotas for 11 Northern counties with fellow Board members Greg Kazmierski, Terry Hilgenberg and Bill Bruins. He also said he discussed those changes in advance with County Deer Advisory Council chairs, but all 11 men denied Prehn’s claim. Those moves forced Prehn to hold a special NRB session in late July to rectify the mess.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s hunters, anglers and trappers should condemn Prehn for blocking Naas, an Ashland school teacher, and support her appointment. So should all 33 state senators.
Naas was raised in Racine County and lives in Bayfield County. She hunts, fishes and traps, and teaches trapper education. She twice served on the Conservation Congress the past 15 years, including most recently as Bayfield County’s chair. Early in her career, she worked in Seymour, Adams County, Grant County and Walworth County. And she holds a bachelor’s degree from UW-Stevens Point in natural-resources management, with a minor in soil sciences.
Folks should also question how a 1964 state Supreme Court decision (Thompson vs. Gibson) squares with the staggered 6-year Board terms specified in the NRB’s 1968 charter. The Court ruled a state post is deemed vacant if the person dies, resigns or gets removed, because state law cites those reasons. But because that law doesn’t mention “after expiration of the term,” the Court lets squatters trespass.
When lawmakers created the NRB in 1968, they didn’t fix that loophole, maybe because they didn’t foresee the crude arrogance of Prehn, Tiefenthaler and Willett ignoring date-specific terms. Letting expired appointees thwart appointments of sitting governors is not the “orderly and waste-free” transition of policy-setting powers the DNR’s creators envisioned 53 years ago.
It seems Tony Evers, and Doyle before him, don’t think it’s worth exercising gubernatorial powers to oust term-expired NRB members. Prehn, meanwhile, is denying Evers his fourth appointee on the seven-member Board, and banking he’ll retain it if Evers loses the November 2022 election.
We’ve now witnessed this disrespect three times in less than 20 years. If lawmakers and governors won’t fix the loophole that allows it, they must think NRB squatters don’t insult Wisconsin’s hunters, anglers, trappers, birdwatchers, conservationists and environmentalists.
If Evers and legislators are misreading that public sentiment, Wisconsin’s citizens must convince them otherwise.
Chairman Frederick Prehn, a dentist and cranberry farmer, declared himself too crucial to the Natural Resources Board to leave the NRB when his term expired May 1.