Protection of Wisconsin’s natural resources ought to be an issue that goes beyond politics. Especially in the state that gave America major conservationist figures like John Muir and Aldo Leopold, there should be a broad bipartisan agreement about being good stewards of our natural heritage. In fact, that was true for much of our state’s history, when environmental protections were put into place by both Republican and Democratic administrations. Unfortunately, though, the recent Republican record from their years in power shows a clear tilt toward polluters and private interests — and against clean air and water, abundant public lands and parks and healthy wildlife.
On all these fronts, recent Republican policies are a departure from past bipartisan consensus. Spurred by this alarming GOP drift out of the mainstream, the two of us are spearheading a new Environmental Caucus within the Democratic Party of Wisconsin to highlight the problems and pollution resulting from Republican policies.
Let’s start with the lakes where we fish and the groundwater we drink. Communities across the state are dealing with a range of pollutants — with little help or sometimes outright resistance from Republican political leaders. This summer, increased phosphorus pollution left many of our lakes coated with algae. Juneau and Wood counties are finding high levels of nitrates in their groundwater. Milwaukee residents with archaic lead-pipe infrastructure are left without the resources to remove the threat to their drinking water and their health. Republican lawmakers also pushed through a new law opening the door wide for sulfide mining companies, while at the same time lowering the water quality standards for such mines, one of the most toxic of all industries.
The Republicans’ answer for air pollution isn’t any better either. In response to high ozone concentrations (aka smog) in Eastern Wisconsin areas like Kenosha and Sheboygan, GOP leaders simply fudged the air quality rating and shifted blame to Illinois. Not much comfort to Wisconsinites with asthma or other respiratory health issues.
In spite of our economy’s reliance on tourism and the importance of outdoor sports, Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature have failed to preserve Wisconsin’s wildlife, public lands or state parks. For instance, GOP policymakers have shied away from decisive measures to address the threat of chronic wasting disease to the deer population. They’ve also slashed funding for state parks and public lands, and in some cases sought to put public lands up for sale. Again, all of these are issues on which Republicans and Democrats used to find common ground and a favorable outcome for Wisconsinites.
One of the clearest indications that Walker and Attorney General Schimel have abandoned environmental protection is the sharp drop in enforcement of the laws that are still on the books —which has fallen by nearly half. Have they forgotten the Wisconsin tradition of conservation and good stewardship or are they just beholden to large corporate interests that view health and environmental protections as a nuisance?
David Shorr and Shannon Thielman are chairman and vice-chairwoman, respectively, of the Environmental Caucus of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.
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