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Secretary Preston Cole retiring from DNR

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Secretary Preston Cole retiring from DNR

Nov 18, 2022 | 1:07 pm ET
By Henry Redman
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Secretary Preston Cole retiring from DNR
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Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Preston Cole (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole is retiring from his position after a 35 year career in public service and four years at the helm of the state’s conservation agency, Gov. Tony Evers announced in a news release Friday. 

Cole is set to retire on Wednesday, giving Evers a chance to nominate a new leader of the agency ahead of his second term. 

“Preston has been an integral part of my administration since day one, and we are sorry to see him go,” Evers said in a statement. “With his help, we brought science back to the DNR, we helped ensure Wisconsinites have cleaner, safer water, and we are tackling climate change head-on, all while supporting our state park system and the outdoor recreational economy that so many Wisconsinites and visitors enjoy. He has been a great leader at the DNR, and I thank him for his dedicated, thoughtful service to the people of our state and wish him and his family nothing but the best in his retirement.”

During his time as secretary, Cole worked to regulate and mitigate PFAS pollution in the state’s water, established a new wolf management plan that doesn’t set a statewide population goal and focused on other clean water initiatives. Taking office after eight years in which the agency was prevented from addressing climate change by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, Cole has been at the forefront of Evers’ attempt to better care for the state’s environment. 

But the end of his tenure was marred by a contentious battle with Frederick Prehn, a Republican appointee on the state’s Natural Resources Board who has refused to leave his seat even though his term expired last May. Prehn’s refusal to leave has entrenched a Republican majority on the board, which guides DNR policy. Cole, a former member of the board himself — appointed in 2007 and 2013 by Govs. Jim Doyle and Walker — has frequently sparred with Prehn in board meetings. 

Earlier this year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that Prehn is not required to leave his seat until his successor is confirmed by the Republican-controlled state Senate. Prehn’s obstinance has weakened DNR attempts to regulate PFAS and institute lower limits for the number of wolves that can be killed during a hunting season. 

Prior to taking the position as secretary, Cole served as commissioner of the Milwaukee Department of Neighborhood Services and as director of operations for the City of Milwaukee Department of Public Works. He started his career in Missouri where he was the first Black forester in the state’s Department of Conservation.