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.