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Bring back Wisconsin’s Office of the Public Intervenor

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Bring back Wisconsin’s Office of the Public Intervenor

Jun 13, 2024 | 6:15 am ET
By Keri Otte
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Bring back Wisconsin’s Office of the Public Intervenor
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Wisconsin landscape | Photo by Greg Conniff for Wisconsin Examiner

In 1967,  Republican Gov.Warren P. Knowles created a dedicated office to advocate on behalf of Wisconsin’s waterways, lakefronts and the community members who enjoy their use. The Office of the Public Intervenor (OPI) was a legal team that, at one point, ushered in some of the most progressive environmental policies in the country, including the ban on DDT, Wisconsin’s Clean Water Act, and acid rain legislation. The OPI was, in many ways, the EPA before the EPA was born. This governmental watchdog provided the checks and balances necessary to ensure the citizens of Wisconsin had a say in how the state’s rich and beautiful natural resources would be protected for generations to come. It also equalized the needs of business owners and industry with environmental law, ensuring that local economies were stimulated without degrading the land.

In 1995, after  the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the political winds shifted  in favor of industry and the OPI was disempowered and stripped of its ability to sue on behalf of the populace. The one attorney who was left to do the work unsupported was integrated into the DNR’s Bureau of Legal Services, and several years thereafter, the OPI was eradicated completely by the Legislature. In the years that have followed its demise, Wisconsin’s citizens have had to spend countless hours volunteering and financially supporting efforts to protect waterways and other precious natural resources, learning the language of the government and public policy to help communities make informed decisions.

Earlier this year, my hometown of Waupaca was faced with the decision to either allow or deny a national company and local Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) permission to build an anaerobic digester designed  to process manure without releasing methane into the atmosphere. ommunity members were concerned that the digester could cause  PFAS pollution in  local waterways, as well as an increase in truck traffic moving in and around the rural landscape. Multiple meetings were held, and citizens did their own research on zoning laws and spoke with members of other communities with digesters. Much of this time, effort and deliberation would have been handled by the Office of the Public Intervenor, had it existed. This is not the only environmental policy concern that would normally have been handled by an official government watchdog.

For many years, Kohler Company has planned its third luxury golf course, clubhouse and restaurant atop rare wetlands, over 100 acres of forest, as well as the site of Native American artifacts and ancestral remains. According to PBS Wisconsin, former DNR staff reported being pressured by the administration of former Gov. Scott Walker into approving Kohler’s permit to build “no matter what.” Friends of the Black River Forest, a citizen-based environmental education group, has worked diligently to legally challenge Kohler’s permit; the Kohler permit for a new golf course was dealt a devastating blow in December 2023, when a Wisconsin court of appeals upheld a decision denying the company a permit to build its 18-hole course on Black River Forest Land on the shores of Lake Michigan. The court victory was the culmination of a  hard fight by Wisconsin citizens.

The Kohler Company permit and the digester project  are not the only environmental policy issues that have been shouldered by Wisconsin citizens. Green Bay’s Kidney Island was at risk of becoming a toxic waste dump site, had it not been for citizens who raised  $15,000 and put in countless volunteer hours to fight a permit that had already been fought by the OPI not three years earlier. Likewise, a proposed mine in  Crandon was fought by local community members; they had to rely on finding mine experts and researching the adversarial effects of mining on groundwater and local ecology.

Climate change is altering the Wisconsin landscape.  Snow is melting earlier if we get snow at all, birdsongs are disappearing from open prairie and woodlands, and “100-year-floods” are happening every five years. Wisconsin’s Initiative on Climate Change Impacts Assessment Report from 2021 indicates that the state’s daily temperature has increased three degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950s, with the last two decades being the warmest and wettest on record.

With the urgency that climate change is forcing upon us, we must reinstate the Office of the Public Intervenor if we are going to save our beautiful and unique landscape. Twenty years ago an article in the Marquette Law Review estimated that funding the public intervenor cost Wisconsin taxpayers about a nickel per person per year. Today, with inflation,  at the cost of about a dime per person per year in taxes, Wisconsin citizens could trust that our natural resources are protected  as we move from mitigating climate change to escaping the climate crisis.