Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources is feeling the heat of public backlash for its stance on climate change.
Facts and information concerning climate change were deleted recently from the agency's website. Words like "climate change" and any references to greenhouse gases or human contributors also vanished.
Environmental groups are criticizing the agency and worry that this is a preview of the Trump administration.
“The greatest long-term threat to the natural resources in the state is climate change,” said George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. “And if the lead agency that is responsible for managing the environment doesn’t even recognize it what causes it we’re in serious trouble.”
Meyer is also the former secretary of the Wisconsin DNR; he served for more than a decade.
“I can tell you, for sure, I know the people at the DNR, there is not a scientist in that agency that doesn’t believe that a significant contributor to climate change is because of man-made factors,” Meyer said. “Not a one.”
Retired news reporter James Rowen spotted the changes and then wrote about them in his blog “The Political Environment.”
The revised DNR website reads “As it has done throughout the centuries, the Earth is going through a change. ... The reasons for this particular time in the earth’s long history are being debated and researched by academic entities outside the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.”
Rowen likens the muted version of the webpage to the television show “The Wheel of Fortune.”
“You could call these 'Vanna White edits.' In other words, you take a letter here, you take a letter there. And in this case, it’s entire words,” he said. “Recreated sentences, and paragraphs reduced by several hundred words.”
A DNR spokesman declined to comment for the story, but in a statement said the changes were part of a routine website updating. The statement also said that the DNR “does not deny climate is changing and does not challenge the dedicated work of the scientists who are working on the issue.”
Members of the environmental community say it’s more than just words.
Milwaukee Riverkeeper’s Cheryl Nenn said the changes on the website reflect the state’s political climate. And that climate has led to severe cuts for the state DNR.
“It’s a relatively a symbolic change,” Nenn said. “I think its concerning because it really is echoing the larger trends that we’re seeing of science no longer being the base of how we manage our natural resources and our waterways in this state.”
For some, the issue goes beyond the state’s borders. Rowen said website modifications put a spotlight on the national conservative agenda questioning climate change.
“So you have the administration here opposing water science, clean air science, climate science and getting the webpages lined up with their philosophy,” he said. “This is intentional.
"I think they’re trying to line the state up with the incoming Trump administration, so there’ll be an alliance among the Republican-directed states with the new administration to roll back climate science, clean air science at the federal level too.”
National Wildlife Federation president Collin O’Mara said he’s not too concerned about other states following in Wisconsin’s footsteps, because the political leadership, especially in the Great Lakes states, has been supportive of climate change research.
“So, I’m not as worried about the further erosion and questioning of science and the denial that we’re seeing in other parts of the country,” he said. “I’m not as worried, but I do think we’ll see a push in less federal involvement, obviously than we’ve seen under president Obama’s leadership in the last few years.”
O’Mara previously served as Delaware's natural resources secretary. He says organizations like the DNR have a responsibility to provide climate science and information to the public.
“When you start censoring what science says I think you’re at the beginning of very challenging times. I think that’s what we’re seeing in some places,” he said. “But, in places like New York and other states, it’s the other direction. There’s actually more information than ever before. I think Wisconsin in this region is the exception and not the rule.”
In New York State, Jill Jedlicka of the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper agrees. She’s not afraid of similar changes happening in the state, but she is concerned climate rollbacks on the federal level.
“I think the political rhetoric that we’re hearing, a lot correlated to climate change, is both disturbing and concerning for those of us in the environmental science community,” she said. “We obviously are paying close attention to the trends of language. But, what I think is more concerning, is now we have selective censorship of science and data from the record and from policy. That’s not for the good of this planet or the people.”
Economy vs. Environment
The relationship between climate change and the economy is one that cannot be ignored.
“I think there’s a lot of misinformation that somehow environmental regulations are bad for the economy and bad for business,” Nenn said. “And, I think that’s not true.”
The state of Wisconsin depends on clean water and a clean environment for tourism.
“We have a huge water based tourism industry. People come up here and they’re spending billions of dollars on recreating in our lakes, water-skiing, swimming, fishing. In the winter months we have people who are ice fishing or skiing,” she said.
Some environmental groups along the eastern Great Lakes hope to set an example in balancing the economy and the environment.
“We can demonstrate in New York state how having that policy and approach actually benefits our economy,” Jedlicka said. “Because often times ... it’s the argument of economy versus ecology, and environment versus economic development.”