Seventy-five years of conservation through democracy
At its diamond anniversary, the Wisconsin Conservation Congress encourages those who enjoy the oudoors to advocate for the breadth of the outdoor landscape.
On Friday, May 8 in La Crosse, dozens of conversations, stories and laughter will be hushed by the sound of a gavel in a rite of spring as eagerly anticipated as the repeated pop of a baseball off an ash bat. Swinging the gavel, the chairman will call to order the annual Wisconsin Conservation Congress Statewide Convention.
A time-honored tradition follows; a roll call every conservation-minded citizen should heed with a source of pride. One by one, the secretary of the congress will hail and recognize the lead delegate from each of the stateís 72 counties.
Accompanying each answer, the delegate will raise an old wooden paddle adorned with the county name and inscribed with the names of those who have represented that county during the past 75 years.
The Wisconsin Conservation Congress is an advisory body to the Natural Resources Board created by state statute to offer opinions on all matters concerning natural resources. For three-quarters of a century, Wisconsin has offered this direct conduit where citizens can introduce their ideas and forward proposals to enhance outdoor recreation policy and enjoyment. No other state in the nation provides such a direct line or such a unique opportunity.
An early report of the Wisconsin Conservation Commission noted, "In the final analysis, no matter what the commission or department believes to be in the best interests of the state, if the citizenry are not in accord, any program set up would eventually be doomed to failure. The birds, animals and fish belong to the people of the state." This early realization of the importance of citizen involvement was the premise for forming the Conservation Congress.
In 1934, Ralph Immell, directing Conservation Commissioner, appointed a committee to forward recommendations for increasing public involvement in resource management decisions. Committee members included the forefathers of game management in Wisconsin – UW Professor Aldo Leopold, Chief Warden Harley MacKenzie and Superintendent of Game William Grimmer. They proposed a system of elected county committees to work with conservation wardens on game surveys and recommend seasons. Using this plan, the Conservation Department organized two meetings in each Wisconsin county to elect county committees and to evaluate game rules. The gavel fell on the first statewide meeting of the Conservation Congress that same year.
In 1938, elections for these delegates and public hearings on fish and game regulations were held at the same meeting. The modern Spring Fish and Wildlife Hearing process was born. The same format is still used in evening meetings statewide held on the second Monday each April. Sportsmen and women gather to hear and debate proposed changes to natural resource law, and to gather opinions to consider for future policies or rules.
Throughout the 1930s, '40s and '50s, deer topics topped the discussions. Significant opposition to antlerless deer harvest spawned the "deer wars era" when the congress and DNR game managers found themselves on opposite sides of the issue. According to former DNR Secretary Buzz Besadny, in 1984, "That is to be expected. It's a healthy sign that the system works."
Despite differing opinions over the years, the congress has remained an important partner and advocate for both conservation and agency support. Congress members have helped dissuade attempts to diminish the DNRís jurisdiction on outdoor protection, supported much needed fee increases, and lobbied to support conservation programs with sporting groups and legislative committees.
"During my years of service on the congress, I came to realize what a valuable forum it could be for people with varied outdoor interests to come up with creative ideas and suggestions for addressing resource problems," shared John Welter, former congress delegate from Chippewa County and current Natural Resources Board (NRB) member. "Major initiatives like Deer 2000 and the Early Trout Season Task Force improved those ideas and resulted in useful policy suggestions for the NRB and the DNR. At its best, the congress encourages varied viewpoints, doesn't shy from spirited discussions and moves issues forward. As a member of the NRB the last four years, I've valued the best of those suggestions from the congress. Board members can't be familiar with all outdoor activities and the regulations related to them, and the congress can serve a valuable educational purpose in bringing issues to the board for discussion."
Mention the Conservation Congress in a conversation today and people may remember some of the more rancorous recent debates. In 2004, a sportsman attending the Spring Hearing in La Crosse County introduced a resolution to help control an overabundance of free-roaming feral cats preying on songbirds and ground nesting birds.
The following April, when the resolution was included on the questionnaire, the 2005 Spring Hearings touched off a heated, emotional public debate. More than 15,000 people attended statewide. The only other issue that generated higher turnout was a proposal in 2000 in advance of Wisconsinís first mourning dove hunt. Last yearís spirited hearings discussed potential timber wolf harvests once the endangered species was delisted from federal protection.
One of the best examples of the value of a grassroots citizen proposal relates to turkey permits," states Ed Harvey, Jr., the current congress chairman. "In 2003, a citizen in Marathon County introduced his idea of selling leftover spring turkey permits over the counter, first-come first-served once initial permits were drawn and delivered. Two years later, this proposal became a DNR budget initiative and over the past three years it has generated approximately $700,000 annually in revenue for the fish and wildlife account. That's a heck of a nice return for an idea that came in on an 8 Ĺ by 11 sheet of paper!"
"I canít think of many areas of state [natural resource] rules or statutes that havenít been vetted through the congress and the Spring Hearings," said Dick Koerner, Winnebago County delegate, Executive Councilor and 43-year congress veteran. "We've asked for public opinions on everything from open-water duck hunting to requiring fixed tabs on aluminum cans that stay attached to prevent littering. If an issue pertains to the wise use, improvement or preservation of state natural resources, the congress has likely had a hand in it."
Some current policies that appeared as Conservation Congress advisory questions in the past include: requiring a stamp for trout and salmon fishing on the Great Lakes (1981); mandatory use of nontoxic shot for waterfowl hunting statewide (1986) and considering the first muzzleloader only firearm deer season (1986). The congress also rallied support for initiatives like reauthorizing the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund in 1999 and 2007.
The Conservation Congress currently has committees that deal with environmental and habitat issues like the Air, Waste and Water Committee; the Habitat Study Committee; the Forestry, Parks and Recreation Committee; and the Great Lakes and Mississippi River study committees that review matters as diverse as invasive species management, mercury emissions and state forest management.
"I have made a ground rule in my committee that deer cannot be mentioned until after the meeting," laughs Mike Witkiewicz, delegate from Racine and chair of the congress' Air, Waste and Water Study Committee.
"One reason I volunteered to stand for election to the congress was the need to broaden the focus of public discussion on outdoor policy and regulations. Too often we focus on emotional issues, conflicts between consumptive resource users (hunters, anglers and trappers) and non-consumptive users (birders, campers, bikers and hikers). The greater dangers to both communities are issues related to air quality, clean water and habitat destruction. For lovers of the Wisconsin landscape, be it hunting, bird watching or hiking in the woods, there are too many common issues that get overlooked in our squabbles on the few differences between us.
"The Natural Resources Board is responsible for enacting policies that protect forests, air and water, as well as wildlife," adds Witkiewicz. "To adequately fulfill our role as an advisory body, the congress has a responsibility to study a range of issues critical to all species, the environment that is critical to their success, and our overall quality of life."
While the "town meeting" concept of the Spring Fish and Wildlife Hearings has changed very little over the past 75 years, the method by which one "stands to be counted" has changed. The days of counting hands of those for or against a given proposal are gone. Now votes are recorded on paper ballots and tallied electronically. Voting machines and ballots were recommended by a committee of legislators, the League of Women Voters, DNR and congress representatives that examined the Spring Hearing process after the dove hunting hearings in 2000. By 2005, the congress adopted automated vote tabulation statewide. There were other benefits.
"Anonymity was one added benefit," stated Al Phelan, DNR liaison to the congress at the time. "You may have a different opinion from your neighbor, but may have been unwilling to vote that way publicly in the past. Ballots gave you a chance to record your opinion and not worry what others might think of that opinion."
Primary benefits have been accessibility and time. Traditionally, the spring meetings would run until 10 p.m. or later, and if you were unable to stay until the end of the hearings, you might miss some of the votes. Now, hearings typically end before 10 even though the volume of questions has almost doubled. Participants with limited time can still vote on any or all of the items within the questionnaire.
"In 2006, at the Spring Hearing in Racine County, I watched a father enter the hearing room with two kids, one in a stroller and the other in his arms," stated Rob Bohmann, congress vice chair. ďHe obviously was interested in attending, but being a father of young children myself, I knew he wasnít going to be able to stay for three hours. He took the time to fill out his ballot and left about a half hour later when his children grew impatient."
Some really enjoy the annual discussion of these outdoor issues and say it is an unfortunate consequence that many attendees leave the hearings early, without hearing the debate and rationale of fellow hunters, anglers, campers or boaters.
"People arenít sticking around to hear what other concerned citizens know or add to the debate," said Mark Noll, delegate from Buffalo County and executive councilor. "Yes, the meetings are faster, but I donít know if that is necessarily a good thing. Iíve been on the congress for over 20 years, and I often saw sentiments and votes change due to testimony from a DNR staffer or citizens offering different points of view. I know that ballot voting is here to stay and people like convenience, but it has reduced the amount of discussion."
If you belong to a rod and gun club, read outdoor magazines, shop at a local sporting good store, have taken a DNR safety course, or are involved in county conservation initiatives, then you have likely met a congress delegate. There are 360 delegates across the state: five representatives for each of Wisconsin's 72 counties.
Delegates must be at least 18-year-old residents of the county they wish to represent. And they need to convince others that they can devote the time and energy necessary to represent local county interests on natural resource issues.
Delegates are not compensated for their time and they are required to attend approximately six meetings a year. They are typically only reimbursed for travel expenses for one or two of those meetings.
"Itís a labor of love; it is my duty," states Rich Kirchmeyer, current congress secretary and delegate from Price County. "I probably log about 10 to 15 hours a week each year representing the congress." Kirchmeyer has represented Price County for 28 years.
While delegates are naturally involved in fish and game activities within their communities, their commitment to preserve resources and protect our environment transcends hook-and-bullet issues. Delegates are known and respected in their communities and are recruited to provide leadership on a wide array of local issues.
For instance, in 2001 a group in Dodge County petitioned for the gradual drawdown of Beaver Dam Lake.
"Any time you mention water levels there are going to be varying opinions," states Dale Maas, delegate from Dodge County and executive councilor. "A counter petition to the proposed drawdown was filed, and a stakeholder group comprised of townships around the lake, the City of Beaver Dam, and 17 user groups was pulled together to try and find some compromise to the two petitions."
Maas was asked to facilitate the meetings and chair the group. In February 2002, after numerous debates and long meetings, a draft Dam Level Order was presented for public hearing and the order was later adopted by the Department of Natural Resources.
"This was, and continues to be, a very difficult issue in the Beaver Dam area," concludes Maas. "Compromise was the only way we were going to get anywhere. Some folks think that too much was compromised and others think not enough was gained, but, thatís the nature of compromise. In my opinion nothing of value comes without sweat and sacrifice."
"I am continually impressed at the amount of time and effort that congress delegates give unselfishly in the name of conservation," comments DNR Secretary Matt Frank. "Congress delegates sit on countless DNR committees. They are partners in local habitat efforts and they are pivotal in passing on the traditions of hunting, fishing and trapping to our children. On their 75th anniversary I am honored, on behalf of the professionals within the Department of Natural Resources, to thank the congress members past and present for their dedication and interest in our natural resources."
Conservation in Wisconsin was fed by the words and essays of Aldo Leopold and thrived under committed leaders like former Governor and U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson. For that rich ethic to survive, it needs to be upheld by our children.
"It all comes down to instilling a sense of appreciation for nature at a young age," states Larry Bonde, delegate from Manitowoc County. "What better ways to teach our children about sound conservation practices and nature than to actively participate in outdoor pursuits?"
Many people still enjoy hunting, angling, trapping and gathering and they savor wild foods in their diets. However, even given our rich hunting and fishing traditions, the number of participants in these outdoor pursuits is declining.
"If you make a connection with nature, like my brothers, sisters and I had," said Bonde, "you will be more willing to protect the resources into the future. Thereís no better time to forge that appreciation than when you are young."
The Conservation Congress has an Outdoor Heritage and Education Committee that addresses outreach, recruitment and retention of future resource stewards. In addition, through the dedication of individuals like Bonde and donations, they have developed the "Wall of Fame."
"The entire wall is really geared towards kids," said Bonde. "The skulls, antlers, taxidermy mounts and furs are things that really capture their attention and they ask tons of great questions, sparking their interest."
The congress is also an active supporter of the annual Youth Outdoor Education Expo in Beaver Dam, and has worked to get the National Archery in Schools program active in more schools.
"Anniversaries are opportunities to review and celebrate the past, and to look forward to the future," reflects Congress Chairman Ed Harvey. "Our first 75 years have been filled with accomplishment. Our future is filled with promise. Today, the Conservation Congress is not only a great ideal, it is a great institution.
"It's not the same institution that first convened in 1934. The issues are far more diverse and the delegation that will assemble in La Crosse this May has a more diverse background and a better understanding of the interrelationship of each environmental issue to the next. It is up to the congress to bring even those with the narrowest interests together to learn, and understand the breadth of the landscape here in Wisconsin," Harvey says.
"As the Conservation Congress celebrates its diamond jubilee, it can be proud of the rich traditional role it has played in shaping fish and wildlife policy for more than seven decades," says Professor Christine Thomas, NRB chair and dean of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. "Its challenges for the next seven decades will be the same issues facing all citizens interested in taking our hunting traditions forward: engaging younger and more diverse publics in the conversation, ensuring access to lands and waters, preserving habitat, and becoming educated and conversant on a broader array of environmental challenges such as energy policy and climate change."
Kurt Thiede is DNR's liaison to the Wisconsin Conservation Congress.
If you would like to join the congress at their annual convention, the general session is open to the public. For an agenda and information on the event, visit Wisconsin Conservation Congress.