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The February issue of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine could be the last after Gov. Scott Walker has proposed eliminating funding for the literary work as part of the 2017-19 state budget. Outdoors enthusiasts and others are opposed to that action.

I dumped fish heads and carcasses into a pot with two quarts of water and brought the pan to a simmer. 

I had filleted the fish the night before after an afternoon of ice fishing on a Chetek area lake. Normally I would have tossed the remains in the trash — in the summer I bury them in the back yard, but that’s not an option in winter — but I had a new use for them.

They would be boiled to produce the stock for Wisconsin fish chowder, or “Sconnie chowder” as writer and food critic John Motoviloff called it in an article. The February issue of “Wisconsin Natural Resources,” a bi-monthly magazine put out by the state Department of Natural Resources, contained a recipe for that fish dish.

The February issue of the magazine may be the last one. Gov. Scott Walker calls for eliminating it in his proposed 2017-19 state budget. This would end a publication that dates back to 1919, although the modern version has more color photos than old issues.

But more on the February issue.

I was looking for an article about the future of North American wildlife conservation funding, which also turned out to be written by Motoviloff. Then I came across the chowder recipe. Motoviloff described himself as an East Coast transplant who missed the homemade fish chowder he used to have until he figured out he could make it by substituting the bones and fillets of Wisconsin fish.

For his writing, Motoviloff had the satisfaction of seeing his work in the magazine and not much else. Unless the DNR has changed its policy, stories in the magazine are either staff written or contributed.

The magazine is supported by subscriptions — $8.97 for a year — and from patron license purchasers, which was how I came to get it. A patron license costs $165 and includes just about every license or sticker the DNR offers. Patron license buyers, about 40,000 of us, make up slightly more than half of the magazine’s circulation. 

The governor says killing the magazine will save patron license buyers money, but patron license buyers have not been clamoring to get rid of it. This has more to do with policy than budgets. 

Changed role

The governor does not consider science, education or communication to be part of the DNR’s “core mission.” The previous budget got rid of many DNR staff and singled out scientists, educators and communications folks for special persecution. In that case, getting rid of the researchers didn’t necessarily save general state income tax dollars. Their positions were mostly supported by federal funds coming back to the state.

The magazine has always been a company magazine, not freewheeling journalism. You will never find a story critical of DNR management or decisions by the Natural Resources Board or the state Legislature.

In paging through the February edition, I don’t see anything controversial. There is a photo essay titled “Picturing Wisconsin Lighthouses.” Other topics include such topics as preserving pine relics, tribal youths working on summer conservation projects, Wisconsin geology, and an “envirothon” — an outdoor environmental competition for middle schoolers. The magazine also has a piece on Saddle Mound, a sandstone outcrop in Jackson County, and another about a natural area in northern Wisconsin.

The magazine also contains a section with letters and photos sent in by readers. Sometimes readers are from out-of-state, so the magazine may have some value for tourism. If a writer had a question, DNR wildlifers or other staff responded. Eau Claire resident Dan Perkins had a photo of an extra-large puffball mushroom from his backyard in this section of the magazine.

The issue’s main story was titled “Groundwater: Powering Wisconsin’s Economy.” It was a quality story with attractive graphics and layout. The article could easily could have delved into controversial areas, such as the effects of groundwater pumping on the lakes of the central sands region, or DNR’s policy of rubber stamping high-capacity well applications, or the extensive groundwater contamination in Waushara County from manure. They didn’t go there.

Stories killed

I looked over a few back issues of the magazine, but all the stories seemed harmless. December’s issue included articles about snowshoeing and winter camping and aquatic plants under the ice. In October, Wisconsin Natural Resources contained stories about youths shooting their first deer, dancing cranes and urban coyotes.

But the magazine has offended those in positions of power, according to a former editor, Natasha Kassulke, who left the publication in July.

All articles in the magazine came under increased scrutiny after the Walker administration took power, especially after magazine editors ran an insert about global warming from UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute, Kassulke said. At one time, this would have been considered the Wisconsin Idea — getting information from the university to the public. Now our state leaders believe there is information the rank-and-file shouldn’t have.

Among the stories that higher-ups killed, Kassulke said, was a story about restoring the pine marten, a rare member of the weasel family that can climb trees and eats chipmunks and red squirrels. That would make them popular with some homeowners, but the story included a map of the pine marten’s range in Wisconsin and that range included a remote area in Iron and Bayfield counties where a big mine was scheduled to be built. 

That map was enough to have the story pulled, according to Kassulke. Such are the times we live in.

I’ll hang on to the February issue of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine. It may become a collector’s item. Besides, it contains that chowder recipe.

Knight is a Leader-Telegram correspondent who lives in the Eau Claire County town of Seymour.