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DNR Secretary Preston Cole retiring next week, leaving the agency’s top spot unfilled

Evers spokesperson says a replacement will be named as soon as possible

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Preston Cole speaking in La Crosse
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole, right, says new investments in water quality programs are needed in the next state budget during a visit to La Crosse on March 1, 2019. Hope Kirwan/WPR

The head of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is retiring next week four years after Gov. Tony Evers named him to the post. Preston Cole has served as secretary of the DNR since Evers was sworn into office in 2019.

“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.”

Evers said Cole has been a great leader and wished him well in his retirement. In a statement, Cole said it’s been an honor to serve in the role.

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“I will continue to stand with Gov. Evers as a Wisconsinite, colleague, and friend,” Cole said in the release. “Thanks to Gov. Evers for ushering in a new era of environmental protections and conservation programs. His efforts to put the well-being of Wisconsinites first continues to resonate in every corner of our great state. I have no doubt that in his second term he will continue to put the people of Wisconsin first.”

The Republican-controlled Senate unanimously confirmed Cole as head of the agency two years ago even as GOP lawmakers have delayed or denied confirmation of at least 150 Evers appointees, according to figures from the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau. Cole is stepping down Wednesday, Nov. 23, and his departure leaves the agency’s top spot unfilled. An Evers spokesperson told the Associated Press that a replacement would be named as soon as possible.

During his tenure at the DNR, Cole pledged to make science a higher priority in the agency’s decisions. He oversaw Evers’ agenda to improve water quality in Wisconsin through clean water initiatives. This year, the agency enacted the state’s first drinking water standards for PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The chemicals don’t break down easily in the environment and have been linked to serious health issues.

Cole also butted heads with conservative members of Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board last year over the state’s approach to wolf management. The DNR originally planned to hold one hunt in November last year, prompting a lawsuit that sought to force an earlier hunt. A Jefferson County judge ordered the agency to hold a hunt in February 2021, during which hunters killed 218 wolves in less than three days.

In the months that followed, the agency came under fire for its handling of the wolf hunt. The DNR battled with its policy board over an appropriate quota for a second season, which was eventually put on hold. A federal judge restored protections for wolves earlier this year. Since then, the agency has released a draft of its wolf management plan that eliminates a population goal to manage the species, which conservatives and hunters had pointed to as justification for reducing the wolf population.

Cole also led the agency at a time when the DNR board’s former chair, Fred Prehn, refused to step down at the end of his term to make way for Evers appointee Sandy Naas. A conservative majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court confirmed in a ruling this summer that it’s legal for Prehn to remain on the board, preserving the board’s conservative majority. Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker first appointed Prehn to the board in 2015, and his term expired in May last year.

Prior to Cole’s appointment as secretary, he served 11 years on the Natural Resources Board, including two years as chair in 2013 and 2014. Cole was first appointed to the board in 2007 by former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and appointed again in 2013 by Walker.

Cole began his career with the Missouri Department of Conservation, where he became the first Black forester. He also served as commissioner of the Milwaukee Department of Neighborhood Services and as director of operations for the City of Milwaukee Department of Public Works.

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