Trump Michels Rally 080522 34-08062022151238 (copy)

Gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels speaks at a rally hosted by former President Donald Trump in August. 

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels on Tuesday floated the idea of breaking up the state Department of Natural Resources into two entities: “one that services the business side, one that services the hunter side, the sportsman side.”

The construction executive’s comments came during a Q&A with the Rotary Club of Milwaukee, in response to a question about a moment during last week’s gubernatorial debate when Michels said the DNR was “close to being broken.”

During Tuesday’s event, Michels said he hears from people throughout the state about their frustrations with the agency.

“It's twofold. One, it's businesses that are trying to expand and are awaiting a water permit or something like that, and two, it’s hunters. I believe that people at the DNR need to be recalibrated as to … who their customers are,” Michels said. “Their customers are businesses, people that pay taxes, people that want to expand their business, and the customers are hunters.”

Hunters “don’t feel like the DNR has their back right now” and feel like “the DNR is out to get them,” he continued.

The Republican candidate, who is vying to unseat Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, said “if we have to, maybe we break the DNR up into two parts.”

“I don't have the answers on that today, but I will sit down with the smart people and figure that out. I'm well aware that we need to have a very strong secretary of the DNR. I'm going to surround myself with great people, strong people. We're going to have an outstanding administration and people will not have questions anymore about the DNR nor any other state agency,” Michels said.

In addition to the DNR, Michels said he would sit down with “all state agencies” to “recalibrate them.” A campaign spokesperson did not immediately answer whether Michels would like to split up, eliminate or create any other agencies.

Evers campaign spokesperson Kayla Anderson panned Michels' comments, saying in a statement that Michels has "no serious plan as to how that's going to work or how much that's going to cost taxpayers" and is "clearly unprepared to be governor."

"There's 20 days until the election — and Tim Michels still can't offer any specific proposals as to how he's going to improve the state of Wisconsin," Anderson said.

As its name suggests, the DNR oversees the state’s natural resources. Hunting, fishing, recreation, conservation, environmental protection and regulation of land and water use all fall under the agency’s umbrella. 

Republican lawmakers and candidates have advocated for splitting it up for more than two decades, with proposals over time from former Assembly Speaker John Gard, former U.S. Rep. (and then-gubernatorial candidate) Mark Green and, more recently, former state Rep. Adam Jarchow.

The last time such a proposal was introduced, in 2017, five of the agency’s former secretaries shared their opposition to the plan, saying it would make the agency less efficient, more costly and less responsive to the public.

The DNR has been the subject of an ongoing political debate since Evers took office, as the state Senate has declined to approve his appointee to the state Natural Resources Board. Wausau dentist and gun store owner Frederick Prehn, who was appointed to the board by Republican former Gov. Scott Walker, has refused to leave his seat to make way for Evers’ appointee, natural resources educator Sandra Naas.

Prehn’s term expired in May 2021, but he has successfully applied an obscure state law that allows members to keep their seats if the Senate has not confirmed their replacements. The state Supreme Court ruled in June that Prehn may retain his seat until the Senate confirms someone to replace him.

As long as Prehn remains, Republican appointees hold a 4-3 majority on the board, which dictates policy for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.