Interview with DNR Secretary Preston Cole

Hello Mr. Secretary, thank you for offering to spend some time with us. I want to start by recognizing the special relationship that our organization has with the DNR. Much of the conservation work that we do would not happen without our partnership. For many of us volunteers, our local fisheries biologist is one of the most valuable resources we have.


That being said, we recognize that your agency is responsible for much more than just fisheries management. What are your top priorities at the moment?


Thanks, Mike, that’s right. The DNR handles so much more than fisheries, and our priorities run the gamut but all focus on one single, continuous effort: The effective and responsible stewardship of our state’s natural resources.


We are focused on our DNR Budget at the moment, understanding the impacts that COVID will continue to have both to the way that operations function as well as any potential limitations on revenue.


Governor Evers declared 2019 the Year of Clean Drinking water, but the work didn’t stop when we turned the calendar page. We are continuing the critical work to provide safe drinking water to the citizens of Wisconsin.


We are working on rules to address contamination from human-made chemicals called PFAS and are developing targeted standards to reduce polluted runoff like nitrates that contaminate private wells. We are also increasing funding for local communities to replace lead service lines that can degrade and leave lead in public drinking water supplies.


The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund is up for re-authorization, and we will focus on the vital role it plays in providing outdoor recreational opportunities for the public. If COVID has shown one thing, it’s that there is a strong desire for access to public lands, especially close to where people live.


Today’s cultural climate has brought attention to the importance of supporting and growing a diverse workforce. Regardless of race, religion, ability or socioeconomic status, we want the DNR to reflect the people it serves, so we’re developing diversity and inclusion strategies to strengthen the DNR workforce.


That’s great to hear.  Before we dig into some of these issues, could you tell us a little about your upbringing and what led you to this point in your career?


I am a proud FFA alum from Southwest Michigan and a graduate from the School of Forestry, Fishing & Wildlife at the University of Missouri with a Degree in Timber Management and a Minor in Agriculture.


I was the first African-American to graduate with a Timber Management Degree from the University of Missouri since the School’s reorganization in 1973. I was a Resource Forester with the Missouri Dept. of Conservation, a Parks Superintendent for the City of St. Louis, and a Forester for the City of Milwaukee.


The Commissioner of Neighborhood Services for the City of Milwaukee is also part of my career, but my best job is being a husband and father.


Now I know you served with one of our own TU leaders, Mr. Duke Welter, in your time on the Natural Resources Board.  We’ll save the “Duke Stories” for another time, but I wanted to get your perspective on the importance of the Board in shaping DNR policy in Wisconsin.


I have a very unique perspective as someone that has both served on and now works with the Natural Resources Board. This Board is an incredibly important part of the work we do.


The NRB is an unusual entity that is not replicated anywhere in the Country where seven Governor-appointed and confirmed members develop and approve policy around natural resources management in Wisconsin.


I am proud to say that this process has been working well over 85 years in the State of Wisconsin.


Can you recall a moment in your childhood when you made a special connection with the outdoors?


Living in rural Michigan provided me with a myriad of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. Our older sisters would send us outside at 8 a.m.  – fishing, snowmobiling, pheasant hunting, walking in the woods, biking — outdoor activities were a huge part of my childhood.


I was lucky to have robust opportunities outdoors in the 15 acres of wooded area in the community in which we lived. That existence helped formed me to whom I am today.


Nice.  I was about 6 years old and playing on the streambank when my dad caught a 22 inch brown trout in the river near my grandma’s house – I’ve been drawn to water ever since. Can you speak to the importance of the Knowles Nelson Stewardship Program and the access to outdoor recreation that it provides?


The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund has been a critical tool in protecting Wisconsin’s outdoor heritage. Over 30 years, it has helped save critical landscapes and habitat, places to fish, hunt, hike and inspire new generations to love the outdoors.


Public-private partnerships are at the heart of what has led to so much success. Working with groups like Trout Unlimited and other conservation partners have allowed the state to leverage funding and bring community support for critical projects. We look forward to working with partners like TU to shape the future of Stewardship.


I will tell you re-authorization of KN Stewardship is WITU’s number one priority heading into this budget season.  We’re looking forward to working with the DNR, the Governor’s Office, and the Legislature to extend Wisconsin’s iconic public lands initiative.


Speaking of working together, in the past we’ve been fortunate to have some excellent people (like Joanna Griffin and Larry Claggett) occupy the role of Trout Coordinator within the DNR.  Are there plans to fill that position in the future?


As you may be aware, the State of Wisconsin is under a hiring freeze as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. While we continue to assess vacant positions in the Department, I can’t make any commitments at this time about filing that specific position.


That’s understandable. I’m hoping we could discuss a few more policy issues with you.


The public trust doctrine is the centerpiece for protection of our waters and is key to addressing major issues affecting our trout streams, including groundwater protection and agricultural runoff and pollution. Is the Agency and DNR Board aggressively relying on that doctrine in water resource management and regulatory programs? What are some examples?


Outdoor recreation activities generate nearly $8 billion each year and support over 93,000 jobs in our state. Much of the reason for that economic boost is because we have great lakes, rivers and streams in our state, and they are clean and healthy in part because of our public trust doctrine.


In Wisconsin, our constitution says that our waters are held in trust for future generations. These waters are not owned by any riparian landowner, business or government agency. We continue to take this public trust responsibility very seriously and see it as one of our most important guiding principles for everything from habitat protection to wetland restoration activities.


In fact, all of the permitting activities that involve nearshore habitat impacts are driven by those public trust responsibilities. Strong shoreland zoning regulations are supported by the public trust doctrine.


What are the biggest impediments to successfully implementing programs to address the agricultural runoff and water quality problems that threaten or impair our trout waters?


With the exception of large animal farms, known as concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFO’s, the Clean Water Act does not apply to agricultural runoff and the resulting water quality problems. We must rely on largely voluntary approaches to protect waters like trout streams.


While the overwhelming majority of agricultural producers want to do the right thing and many are innovative leaders in that regard, it only takes one or two bad actors in a watershed to cause severe impacts to sensitive coldwater resources.


In addition, climate change brings with it large precipitation events that quickly overwhelm rivers and streams and flush excess nutrients and polluted runoff into those waters.


Despite those challenges, we are making slow but steady progress and we hope that the new targeted performance standards in areas of the state with very susceptible soils and high nitrates, will enable us to provide greater protections to critical habitat like the 11,000 miles of coldwater streams in Wisconsin.


Some of our best partners in local water conservation are farmers who grant public fishing access and easements on which we’re able to buffer the streams by restoring the riparian corridor. At the same time, we’re alarmed to see so many high capacity wells appearing on the landscape. I see us heading for a future in which we’re left asking who needs the water more – the fish or the farmer? Do you think it’s possible, through regulation and management, to see both fish and farmers survive (and maybe thrive), even in times of drought?


Every watershed in our state has a water budget. Only so much water can be taken out of it before the water budget is overdrawn. Thankfully in many parts of the state, especially during wet years like the last couple, it is not too difficult to allocate those waters in a way that provides for healthy riverine corridors and water for things like crop irrigation.


But there are parts of the state, like the central sands near Stevens Point, where the cumulative impacts of many high-capacity wells in smaller more sensitive watersheds, can adversely impact streams, rivers and even some lakes that rely on groundwater. In those areas, we do our best to work with high-capacity well users to minimize those impacts and to, when necessary, restrict new wells from going into an already overdrawn watershed.


There are good examples of regulatory approaches in states like Kansas, Nebraska and Texas that have done well at finding this balance. Minnesota and Michigan also have some useful models from which we can draw possible solutions.


Until new legislative tools are available, the DNR will continue to use our current resources to balance the need for high-capacity wells for agricultural and municipal use with the imperative to protect some of our most iconic coldwater resources.


Alright, thanks for going into the weeds with us on some of these issues.


Now just for fun – let’s say I give you a 7 day all-expense paid hunting or fishing trip anywhere in the world – where would you go?


Boulder Junction, Wisconsin. And some Trout fishing on the Prairie River … with Duke Welter!


Well played, Mr. Secretary.  Ok, let’s bring it back home. We’ve both spent time in Milwaukee.  I was amazed to find out how much access there is to the outdoors within the city through parks, trails, and public waterways. Do you have a favorite outdoor location in Milwaukee?


Any place on the shore of Lake Michigan: Lakeshore State Park, Bradford Beach, South Shore and Bayview Park.


You’re right, Milwaukee has a wealth of public access to lands and waterways. There are fantastic inland locations, too, like Havenwoods State Forest and neighboring McGovern Park.


Estabrook Park is also a hidden gem, nestled in the city along the Milwaukee River. Not only are there some great fishing opportunities, there is a Biergarten, disc golf course and excellent trails.


Oh, those are all great spots. My friend Jeff, who’s African American, lives in the inner city, and didn’t have a car at the time, would always tell me about the weird looks he would get riding the bus with his waders and fishing pole. It may sound strange to those who haven’t spent time in Milwaukee, but there are some phenomenal fishing opportunities not far from the bus stops.


As a person of color who enjoys hunting and fishing, what do you think we need to do to make sure all Wisconsinites feel comfortable and are able to access outdoor recreational opportunities?


I recently had the opportunity to discuss this very topic virtually at a national conference for fish and wildlife agencies here in the U.S.


What people of color want from the great outdoors varies from person-to-person. It’s not a monolithic group. Some people are conservationists, some are there for health and wellness and some want to enjoy a space in which their tax dollars are being invested. There’s no single answer here that will fit everyone.


But for me, the answer in any of these areas is simple: Make the outdoors welcoming; it doesn’t matter the activity: hunting, fishing, hiking, camping.


If we as the DNR, as conservationists, as stewards of our natural resources, make the effort to be welcoming, people of color will be there.


We encourage that by showing diversity across our internal and external platforms and working to promote these areas with our partners at the Department of Tourism to maximize our reach to a more diverse audience.


When we can show and tell the stories of people of color, it shows that they belong there, in our natural resources story, too. It’s essential to tell the stories to those who help build these areas.


The key is to get people out to enjoy the outdoors.


Mr. Secretary, we look forward to working with you and the DNR towards that goal. Thank you again for taking the time to share your thoughts with us and for your commitment to public service.  


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