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Citizen Voices Matter: In Madison, Wisconsin

Tom Thoresen grew up in Waukesha and committed over 26 years of his 30 years of State Service to enforcing laws for Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources. To understand why, it helps to know a little about his family.

His mother was a teacher who inherited the homesteading values of her Prussian immigrant grandparents. His father worked in the family’s stone cutting quarry but also was a Milwaukee police officer and a foster care parent. Generations of Tom’s family members embraced hunting, fishing and the land ethic near and dear to Wisconsin’s conservationist history.

But it was an uncle who was a DNR Conservation warden who inspired Tom to study hard, pass his civil service exams and become a warden himself to serve the public and protect our natural resources.

“What made me go into environmental enforcement was the idea that it would protect the public and our environment. I learned that the best law enforcement involves problem prevention, problem solving and education.”

Tom learned from his studies and from his uncle that the Department of Natural Resources as we know it is always evolving. The way our natural resources protection agency is structured has always reflected the political values of elected leaders at the time. The Robert La Follette years early in the last century made clean, open government a priority.  The Progressives (both citizens and politicians) of the late 1920's and early 1930's led the establishment of the citizen board led Conservation Department to help put professional, long-term science management first and reduce "undue political influence" in natural resource decision making. The Warren Knowles administration in the ‘60s appointed The Kellett Commission to reorganize state government and merge Resource Development and Conservation agencies, which were reorganized again in the mid-90s into the DNR we know today.

“Government should always try to deliver the highest level of service for the lowest cost to taxpayers. What’s most important for protecting public health and our natural resources is whether citizens and their needs are also the priority for the agency.”

Tom believes the decline in prioritizing openness and science-based management started when Governor Tommy Thompson made the DNR Secretary an appointed cabinet position in 1995. Over the last 20 years, more and more "undue political influence" has crept into the structure and direction of the agency by reductions in staff, public access to information, and enforcement of long-term resource protection needs.

“Under an agency headed by a citizen-led Natural Resources Board, it was about putting the public and science first and politics second,” said Tom. “But under a cabinet Secretary, it became about putting politics first by those who now run the agency.”

Since his time as a warden and as Deputy Administrator of Enforcement at the DNR, Tom has become deeply concerned about the decline in enforcement in general and more specifically environmental law enforcement.  Current DNR leadership has failed to fill vacant, funded warden positions and other important positions in the agency or seek additional funding that would better protect the public and our natural resources.

“Most companies are pretty conscientious about not violating environmental laws. But without meaningful regulations, inspections and effective enforcement of pollution permits, you don’t have a level playing field for industries or agriculture. Companies who do follow the law should be angry when the state isn’t making sure their competitors are following the law.” Tom said.

“There are many dedicated public servants still at DNR, but their numbers are dwindling. Now the pendulum is swinging too far away from protecting the public’s needs for clean air, clean water and better hunting, fishing opportunities. This is not the DNR I worked for.”

That’s why Tom is one of the dozens of retired DNR staffers who supports MEA’s Petition for Corrective Action to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, asking for help to get Wisconsin back on track with the Clean Water Act. Tom’s concerns with the decline in enforcement were reflected in the Petition and reinforced by the non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau review of the DNR’s water pollution permit program in summer 2016.