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Wisconsin AG Says Politics Won’t Drive Decision On Whether To Remove Natural Resources Board Chair

Kaul Says The Law Will Guide Any Decision On Calls To Remove Fred Prehn

Josh Kaul at podium
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul in a January 2019 file photo. Andy Manis/AP Photo

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul says he won’t let politics decide whether the head of Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board should be removed.

Pressure has been mounting in recent days for the Democratic attorney general to remove the board’s chair, Dr. Fred Prehn, after his six-year term expired May 1.

“We’re going to approach this based on what the law says and what’s appropriate under the circumstances, and that’s going to be what drives our decision here,” Kaul told reporters Monday in Superior.

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Prehn has rejected calls to step down. The Wausau dentist has cited a state Supreme Court ruling that allows him to continue to serve on the board until the Republican-controlled state Senate confirms his replacement.

The board has become the unlikely center of a political power struggle after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers announced the appointments of Ashland teacher Sandy Naas and Milwaukee real estate developer Sharon Adams on April 30 “to fill vacancies created by the expiring terms” of Prehn and board secretary Julie Anderson. Anderson stepped down, but Prehn chose to remain in his seat.

Anderson and Prehn were appointed under former Republican Gov. Scott Walker. A majority of the board is currently made up of Walker appointees. Republicans have not yet set a confirmation hearing on Evers’ nominations.

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Prehn has questioned the Humane Society’s letter and told WPR “there’s a clear correlation between” the timing of the letter and the upcoming vote. He has said his decision to remain is not political, citing a variety of issues facing the board that could use his leadership. Prehn highlighted nitrate, water and wolf management among them.

The Wausau dentist said he does not intend to bow down to peer pressure and that his status on the board is up to lawmakers and the attorney general.

Groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce have voiced support for Prehn, saying he is an independent voice who has not served as a rubber stamp for the state Department of Natural Resources’s policy proposals. The group has been an outspoken critic of the agency’s policies and has argued against the DNR in court over the agency’s authority to regulate high-capacity wells, large-scale farms and environmental cleanups related to PFAS contamination.

Since last week, at least eight groups have supported calls for Kaul to take action, including Midwest Environmental Advocates, Sierra Club Wisconsin, and Wisconsin’s Green Fire.

“The NRB is part of Wisconsin’s tradition of limiting the influence of politics in natural resources and conservation decision-making. Frederick Prehn’s continued refusal to vacate a seat on the NRB after the expiration of his term is doing great damage to that tradition,” the groups wrote in a statement Thursday.

On Monday, Fred Clark, executive director of Wisconsin’s Green Fire, said he served with Prehn on the Natural Resources Board and considers him a friend. But, that doesn’t change his position on state statutes that outline board members’ terms.

“They’re pretty clear, and they say in plain English, that the terms of NRB members are to last for six years. Period,” said Clark. “That’s not for six years and until their successors are appointed and approved.”

Clark said Wisconsin’s Green Fire has supported many of Prehn’s decisions, adding that he’s provided independent leadership to the board. But, he said, Prehn’s refusal to step down and the Senate’s refusal to hold a hearing is clearly political.

Tony Wilkin Gibart, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, said politics has no place on the board and that people deserve a board that is accountable to them. He said the attorney general will decide whether to bring a legal action on behalf of the state to declare that Prehn is illegally holding over in his seat.

“If he brings the action, I believe that a court looking at all the facts and circumstances, especially at the legislative history, will decide and will determine that Frederick Prehn or any Natural Resources Board member is not allowed to stay on the board and exercise power after their term has ended,” said Wilkin Gibart.

If Kaul refuses to take action, Wilkin Gibart said it’s likely that another group will take that legal step in order for a court to decide the matter.

Senate Democrats also called on Prehn to step down last week and urged Republican colleagues to set a confirmation hearing for Evers’ appointees. The GOP-controlled Senate has delayed or refused to hold hearings for the governor’s appointees, including Transportation Secretary Craig Thompson and former Health Secretary Andrea Palm. Republicans also rejected Evers’ former Agriculture Secretary Brad Pfaff in 2019, marking the first time in several decades that the Legislature had fired a member of the governor’s cabinet.