David Michael Miller
This Saturday Aldo Leopold will come alive. We need to hear what he has to say now more than ever because Gov. Scott Walker seems determined to ruin what was once a great environmental legacy.
The occasion is the tenth annual "Madison Reads Leopold" event at the visitor center in the UW Arboretum. Starting at 9:30 a.m. and going to about 4 p.m., readers will step to a simple podium and, without introduction or comment, read a short passage from A Sand County Almanac or from another work. Leopold dated the prologue to his book, "Madison, Wisconsin, 4 March 1948," so the readings are always done on the Saturday closest to March 4 each year.
Leopold was a good scientist and a great writer. He had rare gifts: the ability to be precise without being boring, to be touching without falling into sentimentality, to be funny without trivializing his point, and to be profound without sounding trite or self-righteous.
So, we read his words out loud seven decades after they were written because of the intelligence and enduring wisdom of his ideas and because of the elegance and grace of his composition.
I usually come away from this quiet event happy to have been honored to read a short passage from a great book by a writer who lived in my very own neighborhood.
This year I might want to just sit down and cry. Leopold's legacy -- and the legacy of so many other fine Wisconsin environmental leaders like John Muir, Gaylord Nelson, Warren Knowles, Martin Hanson, Bud Jordahl, Emily Earley and others -- is being dismantled by Scott Walker. Actually, "dismantled" is far too kind a word to describe what he is doing. Our environmental legacy is being defaced by this governor.
In his current proposed budget he would suspend the Stewardship program until 2028. This program, signed into law by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, has protected over 600,000 acres for public outdoor enjoyment and habitat protection. If Walker gets his way there will be virtually no new state park or trail expansions, no new hunting grounds or wildlife areas protected for our growing population for over a decade.
He would eliminate all general tax support for our state parks, which amounts to a 28% cut that the governor wants made up by increasing parks fees. Parks used to be for everyone. Increasingly, they will be for those of us who can afford to visit them. Breaking that pact -- it used to be a state law that half the cost of running our parks had to be from general state taxes -- has dire consequences for the future. Our parks may come to be seen as the province of those who pay the fees and no longer belonging to all of us.
He would further weaken the Department of Natural Resources' ability to acquire and use solid scientific information. The governor would cut 66 positions from the DNR, including 11 natural resources educators, 18 research and other scientists, six biologists and five rangers.
Along those same lines he would eliminate direct DNR oversight over timber cutting on private lands where the owner has enjoyed a deep tax reduction (called the "Managed Forest Law") and make it easier for any endangered plants or animals in forests under MFL to be destroyed.
And he would remove all policy-making authority from the Natural Resources Board, leaving that group all but powerless. By eliminating scientists, weakening oversight of forest management and defanging the citizen board that goes back to Leopold, Walker is essentially saying that there will be nothing to stand in the way of our natural resources and anyone who wants to exploit them for profit.
The governor would also eliminate grants to a dozen nonprofit conservation groups like the Natural Resources Foundation, the Ice Age Trail Foundation, the River Alliance, the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center and the County Forests Association. These civic-minded organizations are not at all political, yet they provide valuable work in the public interest that would be more expensive to perform by the state.
Walker would end recycling grants to local governments and end funding for recycling education at the UW Extension. Wisconsin and its municipalities have some of the best recycling programs in the nation. These programs save resources and help us avoid the impossible fights that surround the siting of new landfills.
He would repeal the "complete streets" law, which requires that when planning roads built with state funds, bicyclists and pedestrians need to at least be taken into account.
Earlier in his term Walker pushed to weaken our mining laws, only to have the big company he was trying to help, Gogebic Taconite, announce last week that it was withdrawing plans for its mine in Iron and Ashland counties. The company pointed to the Environmental Protection Agency's rules on wetlands mitigation. So, Walker sold out our state's environment for nothing except the campaign contributions that he wrung out of the company.
Not all of this will pass the Legislature. The governor has overstepped even his extremely conservative colleagues there. But much of this will survive the budget process.
It's easy these days for those of us who care about this kind of thing -- or any progressive policies at all -- to feel like a small minority being pushed to the margins. But the truth is that most of the environmental policies Walker seeks to reverse -- and most progressive policy outside of the environment -- are positions that the majority supports. Let's be clear about this. We are being governed by an extreme group that does not reflect who we are as a state.
In Leopold's most famous lines from the foreword to Sand County he wrote, "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."
Note that he wrote "use it." Leopold acknowledged that all land was not going to revert to wilderness. His book is really mostly about how land can be used responsibly. In that sense he was no radical. He just wanted us to understand nature better and to see ourselves as having some responsibility to it beyond just exploiting it for near-term gain.
If you feel that way, show up at the Arboretum Visitor Center sometime during the day on Saturday. You can just sit quietly and hear the sounds of a Wisconsin that once was and, if we live long enough and try hard enough, will be again.