On a snowy day in February, 25 retired Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources employees gathered in Minocqua to form a nonprofit group to promote science in public decision making.

They called themselves Green Fire, a term taken from one of the late biologist Aldo Leopold’s most lyrical essays, and also the title of a movie on Leopold’s life.

The group announced its formation on Earth Day last April, and got more of a response than they may have bargained for.

“A lot of groups contacted us,” said Paul Laliberte of Eau Claire, a retired DNR watershed expert and a founding member of green fire. 

“The variety of the requests coming in to us is kind of staggering,” Lalibertie said. “We’re going to be thoughtful about what we get involved in.”

Examples of requests Green Fire has received include help with environmental contamination from an industrial waste site, assistance with an ordinary high water mark determination on the Great Lakes, a review of a mine closure plan and questions about commercial fishing on the Great Lakes, he said.

Unfortunately, the organization does not yet have the resources or personnel to meet all the requests it is receiving.

“These people were frustrated because they were asking for information from the DNR and not getting it, so they came to us,” he said. “We don’t have the resources to be a pro bono consulting service, which I think some people are looking for, but we do want to help … We need to have a good discussion at our first annual meeting.”

Green Fire, with a working membership now of about 140, will hold its first meeting Sept. 8-9 at the Aldo Leopold Foundation near Baraboo. The membership includes retired DNR and federal employees, some retired university researchers as well as some people who worked in communications.

At the meeting, Green Fire members will elect a board as the group’s current board members were appointed on an interim basis, Lalibertie said. 

Also at that meeting, Green Fire members will attempt to better define the role of the organization, he said.  

“We’ll get a real feel for how much capacity and interest there is on what subjects,” he said.

Nancy Larson, a Green Fire member who lives in Ashland, said the meeting will help the organization refine its next actions.

Larson worked for the DNR on water quality issues before recently retiring. 

“Groups are asking for our input and advice. We foresee ourselves working with other conservation groups and providing information to them,” she said.

“What we don’t want to do is duplicate efforts. Our niche is that we have experience working within agencies and the university,” Larson said.

‘Use of science’

Green Fire group members are modeling themselves somewhat after the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, which is comprised of retired National Parks workers and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“We see ourselves advocating for the use of science in decision making on natural resources issues,” Larson said. 

Such efforts may include testifying at legislative or DNR hearings at which natural resources issues are debated, or presenting position papers at hearings, she said. 

“What we’re very careful about is we want to be nonpartisan. We’re not supporting any candidate or party,” Larson said.

The group will seek supporting members and financial help, and possibly will hire a director or staff at some future date, although they have no available funding for those actions at this point, she said.

“We see ourselves primarily as a professional organization or a think tank, not necessarily as an environmental group with a large membership,” she said.

Position altered

Although Green Fire is nonpartisan, both Laliberte and Larson said they founded the group because of the lack of science in recent years in making public policy in Wisconsin.

About one-third of the DNR’s 58 science positions were cut as part of the 2015-2017 state budget, even though in most cases the agency’s funding came from federal sources, not state revenue.

DNR staff are not allowed to talk to the media or to speak at public hearings without getting prior approval from top agency officials who are generally political appointees.

In December the DNR removed from its webpage all references to climate change and any human activities that contribute to climate change. 

As further evidence of the DNR’s reduced role in helping set policy, at a July hearing by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee about a law that would restrict the authority of conservation wardens to enter private property, no wardens or warden supervisors were asked to testify, although some retired wardens spoke as members of the public during the hearing.

“That’s a good example of how not to do it,” Laliberte said of those proceedings.

Many benefits

The importance of science-based decisions being part of state policy was a topic of discussion at an August meeting of outdoors writers in Eagle River. 

Bob Martini, a former DNR water resources scientist and current Green Fire member, said important environmental programs that benefitted the state’s environment and economy likely would not have happened, or would have been delayed, under the oversight of the current DNR. 

Among those efforts were the cleanup of the Wisconsin River, the removal of the pesticide Aldicarb — which saved farmers money when they realized they didn’t need it — and sulfur emissions controls to prevent acid rain. 

Being an early adopter of sulfur emissions controls not only helped Wisconsin’s northern lakes but also benefitted utilities that locked in contracts for low-sulfur western coal before many other states.

Larson said she looks forward to having more leisure time in retirement, and her involvement with Green Fire is a major commitment. She remains concerned about the lack of science in determining public policy.

“The reality is, we just couldn’t sit by with what we saw was happening,” she said.

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