By Todd Richmond
MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin lawmakers should put future sand mines on hold, delay approval for large farms that could cause pollution and pull permits for high-capacity wells that damage state waters, an overwhelming majority of Conservation Congress spring hearing attendees told the group in its annual survey.
The congress is an influential group of sportsmen that advises the state Department of Natural Resources on policy. It holds annual spring hearings in all 72 Wisconsin counties. A highlight of the hearings is a survey asking attendees for their thoughts on dozens of outdoors and environmental topics. The survey is advisory only but offers insight into statewide public sentiment on some of the most pressing issues the DNR faces.
The congress held this year’s hearings Monday. The DNR released survey results Tuesday.
The questionnaire asked attendees if they would support legislation that would impose a moratorium on new frac sand mine permits until the agency completes a study of such mines’ environmental impacts. Seventy-one counties voted yes; the vote in the lone remaining county was a draw. The results didn’t indicate how individual counties voted. In all, 3,226 attendees statewide said yes and 783 said no. Seventy counties said they supported a sand mine moratorium in last year’s survey as well.
The survey also asked if attendees would support legislation giving the DNR authority to suspend permit applications for large livestock farms if questions arise about potential pollution that require study. Again, 71 counties said yes and the last county tied on the question. A total of 3,310 attendees said yes; 695 said no.
Another question asked if attendees would support legislation that would allow the DNR to suspend a high-capacity well’s permit if the well has impacted or depleted area wells, wetlands or surface waters. All 72 counties said yes, with 3,988 attendees in support and 231 opposed.
Asked to comment on the survey results, DNR spokesman James Dick responded with an email saying that the votes are non-binding. The congress will discuss the questionnaire at its convention next month and present the results to the DNR’s board at a May 24 meeting, he said. DNR board Chairman Terry Hilgenberg was in a board meeting Wednesday and didn’t immediately return a voicemail left at his office.
Dick declined to speculate on what changes the survey might drive. Still, prospects for substantial movement look dim with Republicans in control of the Legislature.
The GOP has largely left the state’s booming sand mining industry alone aside from writing a bill in 2014 that would have exempted sand mines from new local ordinances. The measure failed.
Republicans also taken a mostly hands-off approach to large livestock farm permitting, despite a state audit last summer that found DNR staff lack the time to thoroughly monitor the operations and inspections often fell below the agency’s frequency goals. DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp last year announced farms would be allowed to use consultants to draw up permit applications in hopes of reducing back-and-forth with DNR staff and creating more time for inspections.
As for high-capacity wells, the GOP is currently pushing a bill that would relax regulations on existing wells. The measure cleared the Senate last week.
A majority of attendees — 2,704 to 1,089 — also said they would support repealing a law that relaxed Wisconsin’s iron mining regulations. About 2,300 attendees at last year’s spring hearings approved the same question; 1,140 opposed the idea then. A repeal looks all but dead on arrival, though. The same Republican leaders who pushed for the law still control both the Senate and Assembly.