Cole a largely popular pick to lead DNR; pledges to 'double down' on science's role in agencySubmitted: 12/19/2018
Ben Meyer
Ben Meyer
Managing Editor / Senior Reporter

Cole a largely popular pick to lead DNR; pledges to 'double down' on science's role in agency
WISCONSIN - Northwoods Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Minocqua) said Wednesday the DNR has more impact on northern Wisconsin than any state agency--bar none.

Now, that agency could go in a vastly different direction.

Gov.-elect Tony Evers appointed Preston Cole, the current Milwaukee Neighborhood Services Commissioner with a forestry background, as his next DNR Secretary.

"I'd like to double down on science in the epicenter of natural resource management," Cole said at the announcement in Milwaukee. "Can I get an amen?"

Critics say under DNR secretaries Cathy Stepp and Dan Meyer, both selections by Gov. Walker, the DNR has become too business-friendly at the cost of environmental protection.

But if Cole is confirmed, that trend could swing the other way.

"He's someone who comes out of the woods. He's a forester by profession. We're encouraged by his appointment. We look forward to working with him," said Fred Clark, a former Democratic lawmaker now on the board of the conservation group the environmental group Wisconsin's Green Fire.

In the last eight years, the Walker administration cut science jobs and removed references to climate change from the DNR website.

"We're going to ensure that we bring back science to the Department of Natural Resources," Evers said in Wednesday's announcement.

Tiffany couldn't say yet if he'll vote to confirm Cole when the nomination comes before the Senate.

"I've always had a cordial relationship with him. Disagreed on a few issues without being disagreeable," Tiffany said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to work with him."

Tiffany has supported many natural resources changes in the last decade, including more open mining laws, more timber harvest on state forests, and fewer researchers in the DNR's Bureau of Science Services.

"In some instances, they just end up being a rogue division," he said. "There's plenty of scientists doing lots of good work in the DNR. Let's have them do that within the discipline of the agency."

Tiffany wants the DNR to continue in the direction of the last eight years under Stepp and Meyer. He'd like to see more use of a recent forest practices study. Tiffany said the state left $30 million dollars of value in the forests by under-harvesting them.

"We need continued reforms at the Department of Natural Resources, where they're partners with people here, especially in northern Wisconsin, where they're not an impediment," he said.

Rhinelander's Gary Zimmer serves with Cole on the Natural Resources Board and looks forward to his appointment.

"Very good leader," Zimmer said. "He is a very knowledgeable and intelligent person."

If confirmed by the Senate, Cole will take over an agency with 2,500 employees.

Walker and Stepp tweeted their support for Cole on Wednesday.

Walker called the selection a "solid pick." Stepp called him a "balanced, articulate, accomplished guy."

Meanwhile, Rep. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa) found fault with Cole's Milwaukee roots.

"DNR and Tourism secretaries from Milwaukee? That's not very encouraging so far. I'm glad the Legislature is full of great voices for rural WI. Doesn't look so far like the administration will be," he tweeted.

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