Washington, DC – Politics color scientific evaluations and permit decisions to the detriment of the state’s environment according to the results of a survey of all employees of Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The survey, conducted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), also found overwhelming support for removing the Governor’s power to appoint the DNR Secretary and for reestablishing the Public Intervener’s Office which was abolished by Governor Tommy Thompson in 1996.This past December, PEER mailed out surveys to all of the approximately 3,000 DNR employees consisting of questions written by employees. That same week, DNR Secretary George Meyer sent out an e-mail encouraging all DNR employees to participate and more than half returned the PEER questionnaires.
According to survey results, a strong plurality of employees registered concerns about political influence within the agency:
* Nearly half of respondents feel that scientific evaluations are influenced by political considerations with less than a third in disagreement;
* More than half do not trust DNR administrators “to stand up against political pressure in protecting the environment”; and
* More than two in five think that business “has undue influence on DNR decision- making.”
Overall, nearly half of DNR employees believe Wisconsin’s environment is not better protected now than it was five years ago while little more than a third disagree.
The PEER survey also asked employees to write essays identifying the “biggest problem facing the DNR.” By far, the most consistent answer – constituting more than one-third of all employee essays – was political interference and the role of the Governor. As one employee wrote:
“Big business now runs the Wisconsin DNR. Our governor has done tremendous damage to Wisconsin’s reputation as an environmental leader.”
On agency structure, employee sentiment was even more definitive:
* In excess of nine out of ten think that the DNR Secretary should not be appointed by the Governor with more than eight in ten favoring the return of this appointment power to the Natural Resources Board; and
* More than two-thirds of respondents want the Public Intervener’s Office restored while less than one in ten disagree.
“DNR employees themselves are doubtful about their effectiveness in preserving Wisconsin’s natural heritage,” stated PEER national Field Director Eric Wingerter. “Many employees are angry and frustrated from what they perceive to be political interests obstructing sound science and environmental stewardship.”
The survey asked employees to assess conditions within the agency:
* Nearly two-thirds believe that DNR lacks “sufficient resources to adequately perform its environmental mission”;
* Nearly three-fourths say that employee morale is poor; and
* More than one in six fear retaliation or know of instances of reprisal against employees who advocate stronger environmental protection.
A majority of survey respondents agreed that Secretary Meyer was doing a “good job” but similar percentages raised doubts about the performances of other top agency administrators. “Employees believe that Secretary Meyer is holding up under tremendous pressure,” said Wingerter, citing another employee essay which read:
“The biggest problem is to ‘free George Meyer’ by letting the Natural Resources Board appoint the Secretary and restoring the Public Intervener’s Office. This will give George Meyer all his ‘teeth’ back.”