Boots & Sabers

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0651, 05 Sep 17

Stepp leaves a proud legacy

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

Cathy Stepp, the now former Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, has resigned to take a job at the Environmental Protection Agency. In doing so, Wisconsin is losing a truly transformational leader who has left Wisconsin better than she found it.

Wisconsin’s DNR is a massive agency with a huge mandate. Its two primary roles are to manage the state’s natural resources (forestry, hunting, fishing, etc.) and enforce environmental regulations (building permits, enforcement actions, etc.). In order to appreciate the impact Stepp had on the DNR, we must turn back the clock to what it was like before she took the helm.

The DNR will always be a controversial agency because its role is often to find balance between two vital, but occasionally competing, goals. This creates an inevitable friction. The first goal is that Wisconsinites want a clean and sustainable environment for generations to come. The second goal is that those same Wisconsinites want to use that environment for recreational and commercial purposes.

For many years under both Republican and Democrat leadership, the DNR had come to heavily focus on environmental protection to the detriment of the economic and personal interests of the citizens of the state. The environmental enforcement arm of the DNR had been weaponized to take an adversarial posture against Wisconsinites and their businesses. DNR officials viewed their role as to impede any activity that had any negative impact on the environment. It seemed that many of them would rather have had a line of unemployed Wisconsinites look at a pristine prairie from a distance than allow a business to build a factory for them to work in.

When Gov. Scott Walker appointed Stepp to run the DNR in 2011, the environmentalist activists who held sway in the DNR derided her qualifications. After all, they said, she was a business owner and former politician who did not even have a degree in natural resources. It turns out that is exactly what the DNR needed.

Upon taking office, Stepp implemented business principles and methodologies to improve the workflow of the organization. She implemented a Lean Six Sigma concept that helps organizations refine and streamline processesto better outcomes. The public has seen the benefit of these progressive reforms in the form of a faster, easier, more transparent permitting process; the ability for citizens to get many hunting and fishing permits online and register their harvest via a smartphone; and easier access to public lands.

More important than the changes to policies and procedures within the DNR, Stepp guided the agency through a shift in culture and mindset. She has repeatedly said that she DNR should be a “permitting agency, not a prohibiting agency.” This change in philosophy did not permeate the agency without yelps from entrenched interests and bureaucrats who liked to wield the regulatory bludgeon, but it did seep into the language and attitude of the DNR.

The DNR now does a much better job of acting as a partner with businesses and people to properly manage the use of our cherished natural resources while mitigating any negative impact on the environment. As partial evidence of this, fines to businesses are much less frequent since Stepp took office because the agency is proactively working with polluting businesses on mitigation and abatement techniques instead of just hammering the business with a fine for violating. More carrots and fewer sticks have proven to be healthier for the environment and the economy.

Wisconsin’s next DNR secretary would do well to continue and accelerate the reformation of the DNR. Top on his or her list should be to advocate to split the agency into two — a natural resource management agency and a regulatory enforcement agency. This is a reform that Stepp opposed, but would be the next, natural step in modernizing the agency(ies) to be more nimble and effective.

Stepp will be missed, but Wisconsin will continue to benefit from her tenure at the DNR for years to come.



0651, 05 September 2017


  1. jjf

    I’d like you to google “Stepp bags first deer ever – The Lakeland Times” and tell me if you would’ve shot at that one.

  2. Le Roi du Nord


    You take an overly simplistic view of environmental protection, the economic benifits of a healthy environment,  and the DNR’s role at the state level.

    Many of the laws that DNR has been (maybe “were” in todays climate) authorized to enforce are delegated from the feds to the state.  This holds for the CWA, CAA, solid and hazardous waste, etc.  WI was held in high regard nationally for how the state implemented those delegated responsibilities.   Other states that didn’t take on the delegated authority were beholden to EPA and COE for regulation and enforcement.  Indiana was an example of how cumbersome and expensive it was for the feds to run the program.

    The economic benefits of a clean environment are easy to see.  Let’s use water quality as an example: If you lived along any major river ( Wisconsin, Fox, Oconto, Menominee, Wolf, Peshtigo, Flambeau, Chippewa, etc) in WI before the CWA you were subjected to pollution of all sorts; industrial, municipal, non-point, etc.  The river that flowed through my home town was the largest single source on N  in the entire Great Lakes basin, all from one small paper mill.  A major discharge event  in the mid-60’s made the national news when the sulfite liquor effluent discolored the siding on houses for miles downstream.  Total fish kills were routine.

    Now the walleye fishery in Green Bay and tributaries is a multi-million dollar boost to the local economy, all while Georgia-Pacific and P & G continue to make paper along the banks of the Fox.   That is just one of many examples of how a clean environment benefits the entire state.

    “The DNR now does a much better job…….”.  This whole paragraph will need some explaination, because there is no evidence that any of your claim is actually true. 

    Stepp will be missed by no one with any regard for the environment or our natural resources.  She was a poor leader who ruled by fear and retribution.

    And just to point out a misconception: DNR wasn’t and isn’t in the building permit business, that is (at least for now) the responsibility of the local unit of government.  But legislators like Tiffany and Jarchow are hard to work to take away that local control as well.


  3. Paul

    Nobody cares, white supremacist troll.

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