TOMAH — The former head of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources criticized the agency’s decision to allow a Georgia company to build a frac sand operation on Monroe County wetlands and legislative attempts to exempt the project from the appeals process.
George Meyer, who served as DNR secretary from 1993 to 2003, testified on behalf of the nonprofit conservation group he now heads at a hearing Friday on a permit allowing Meteor Timber to fill in 16¼ acres of wetlands — including more than 13 acres of white pine and red maple swamp that DNR ecologist called “exceptional” and “irreplaceable” — in order to build the $70 million processing and loading terminal near the town of Millston.
“The permit did not justify the decision,” Meyer said in an interview. “They put conditions into the permit for information that should have been gathered before the permit was issued. That’s trying to milk the cow after it’s out of the barn.”
Meyer, now executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said he decided to testify after the state Assembly’s passage of a bill — introduced as an amendment in the final minutes of the session — that would exempt the project from the appeals process.
“That is what brought us here today,” he said. “Agency leadership directions to staff and legislative attempts to intervene and eliminate the impact of a public process is really troubling to us.”
Meyer said the project would set a bad precedent for future permit decisions.
His comments were echoed by Michael Cain, a former DNR attorney who handled wetland issues during 34 years with the agency before his retirement in 2010.
Cain testified that language in the permit indicated it was drafted as part of a planned denial, and it was issued conditional on information that “would reasonably be required before you could even consider issuing a permit.”
“From the structure of the document,” Cain said, “I suspected that someone in the agency must have ordered issuance of a permit in spite of these findings of fact.”
Their comments came at the end of a five-day hearing where the DNR is defending its decision against a challenge from Clean Wisconsin and the Ho-Chunk Nation.
Earlier in the week, agency staff members provided testimony that they followed department policy and that the project would not result in a significant adverse impact if permit conditions are followed.
Meteor has proposed to restore and preserve more than 630 acres of other land near the the 752-acre site near Millston, which would serve two nearby mines on land the company acquired in 2014 when it purchased nearly 50,000 acres of Wisconsin forest.
However, the permit stated those mitigation efforts “are not likely to fully compensate” for the loss of the swampland, which is considered an imperiled habitat.
A spokesman for a pro-business group supporting the mine said the project will support hundreds of jobs and the opponents were simply trying to “cause a ruckus.”
“The Natural Resource Development Association once again stands by the edict that not allowing this project to proceed will be a massive determent to the surrounding environment,” Nathan Conrad said. “Those bringing about the obstructionist actions against this project should be ashamed of themselves for the falsehoods that have been put forward.”
Administrative law judge Eric DeFort will determine whether the project will have significant adverse environmental consequences and is the least environmentally harmful alternative as well as whether the agency had sufficient information and followed procedures outlined in state statute.
Parties have until March 16 to file post-hearing briefs, and rulings typically take 30 to 60 days.
A handful of local residents at Friday’s hearing spoke for and against the project.
Scott Goetzka, chairman of the town where Meteor’s mine would be located, testified that Meteor had agreed to the town’s requests regarding setbacks, blasting and haul routes and that the company will pay the town $100,000 a year, which will eliminate the town levy while increasing its road repair budget.
Meteor agreed to make the same payment to the town of Grant, where the processing facility would be located. Town chairman Troy Lambert submitted an affidavit saying the project would create jobs and operate “in a safe and responsible manner.”
“Meteor Timber was been a good, trustworthy company to deal with, and the project will be a boost to my township,” Lambert said.
The current property owner, Marty Alexander, said the project would be “a benefit for everyone in the state.”
Alexander recounted how he lost his crop in a 2010 downpour before running afoul of the Environmental Protection Agency for illegally filling wetlands on his land, which led to fines of more than $320,000, which he had to borrow.
“I’m just a little guy trying to make a living … and support my family,” Alexander said. “Meteor Timber came along … this is a godsend for me.”
He reiterated a threat to cut down all the trees on his property if the project isn’t approved.
“I don’t want to do it,” he said. “But I will have to do it to survive if this project doesn’t happen. I will have no other choice to protect my family.”
“I don’t want to (cut down all the trees), But I will have to do it to survive if this project doesn’t happen. I will have no other choice to protect my family.” Marty Alexander, current property owner
The city of La Crosse is inviting people to weigh in on making Jackson Street more bike-friendly.
The city, along with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, will listen to input during a meeting from 6 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at Collins Auditorium in the Viterbo University School of Nursing Building at the corner of 10th and Jackson streets.
WisDOT project manager Aleigha Burg said the repaving of Hwy. 33, which runs along Jackson Street and State Road between Third Street and Losey Boulevard, is slated for 2021.
“We’re going to go through and repair the concrete pavement down there and we’re going to ground out defects on top,” Burg said.
The project calls for the DOT to put in an asphalt overlay, replace any damaged curb and gutter, and replace the curb ramps at all the intersections.
“We’re looking for more feedback to help us with our decision on what we’re going to put back on Jackson Street,” Burg said.
Specifically, the city wants to hear from the people who live in the area, according to senior planner Tim Acklin.
“The first question it really poses is: Bike lanes or no bike lanes?” Acklin said. “The two neighborhood associations prefer bike lanes, but they wanted to hear what those more impacted by that think, those adjacent property owners.”
Because the project doesn’t include any widening of the road — which would require property acquisition — including bike lanes would mean parking on one side of the street would need to be eliminated.
“The next question is if you do want bike lanes, which side of the street is parking removed from?” Acklin said.
He invited the public to give answers Tuesday, while the project is early in the process.
Activist and author Frances Moore Lappé describes herself as “an evangelical of democracy.”
“I feel like to a lot of people, democracy is the spinach we have to eat to get our yummy sugary dessert — personal freedoms,” she said in an interview Friday. “I’ve come to believe that democracy itself is enobling, a noble cause, it enlivens the spirit and brings us together. It meets the deepest human needs.”
Lappé, known for her 1971 book “Diet for a Small Planet,” will share her passion for democracy Monday during a La Crosse United to Amend event at 7 p.m. at the Viterbo University Fine Arts Center. In addition to bringing more attention to La Crosse United to Amend’s April 3 city of La Crosse referendum that seeks to overturn the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission, Lappé will discuss her latest book, written along with Adam Eichen, “Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want.”
“The overarching theme of my talks and our book is really democracy is what we do, not what we have. We have maybe assumed it’s protected by institutions and not something that every generation is responsible for bringing life to,” Lappé said.
La Crosse United to Amend member Pam Knudtson happened to listen to Lappé’s book while taking a recent trip. She was particularly struck by chapters in which Lappé and Eichen describe what can be done to support democracy on a local level.
“That kind of reflected the way the people who did the petitioning handled things here in La Crosse,” Knudtson said.
The group brought the referendum before the voters by collecting more than 3,600 signatures in a petition drive last fall, then asking the city government to put it to a vote. They hope La Crosse will join more than 120 other Wisconsin municipalities who have passed similar referendums to curb the influence of large sums of money on elected officials. The idea is to put limits on large donations, particularly those put forth by political action committees and corporations.
“If as many more towns and cities pass this, it will really push a strong message to our state Legislature,” Knudtson said.
Lappe described grassroots activities like those of La Crosse United to Amend are the basis of democracy, particularly as it encourages ensuring everyone has an equal voice.
“To me, it’s all woven together and it all depends on our actions, our voices being heard,” Lappe said.
She likened U.S. democracy to an auditorium.
“We’re all in a crowded auditorium, and we’re told we all have the right to speak. The only problem is that some people have big electronic megaphones,” she said.
Court decisions like Citizens United have created a system in which not only do some people have megaphones, but some of them are invisible and some are wrapped in sheets and not even human, she said.
“The thing is that it’s so commonsensical, in a sense, that I think people get it. Corporations can’t sit on juries. They can’t do the things, the obligations, and what it means to be a citizen,” Lappé said.
The author will share thoughts on how to achieve those goals, as well as reflecting on all that’s happened since Donald Trump was elected president.
“There’s been a lot of emphasis in the last year, since the election, on resistance. We’ve got to go a lot further than just resisting its demise,” she said.
She recommends people start by connecting with their neighbors.
“The first is finding right in your own community even one buddy who is interested in what’s happening in Wisconsin. I think state and local (government) is really important right now,” Lappé said.
She plans to share the importance of getting engaged to create a real, accountable democracy in the U.S.
“That’s the big picture of what I want to leave people with is really excitement that things are happening on the state and local level and can happen at the national level,” Lappe said.
MADISON — Gov. Scott Walker and the state’s business lobby — in a rare break with Republican President Donald Trump — are coming out against Trump’s planned tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, saying they could harm Wisconsin companies, outsource U.S. jobs and spark a global trade war with far-reaching consequences.
Walker on Friday joined the backlash against Trump’s plan to impose tariffs of 25 percent on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum.
Walker’s office said the tariffs could affect “multiple sectors and industries” in Wisconsin, including MillerCoors, Harley-Davidson, Neenah-based packaging manufacturer Bemis and Seneca Foods, a food processor and distributor with nine plants in the state.
Trump’s plan could have the unintended effect of encouraging manufacturers to move their operations out of the U.S. to avoid the tariffs, Walker said.
UW-Madison economist Steven Deller said Trump’s plan could dampen the U.S. construction market and boost consumer costs, especially for cars and home appliances.
European leaders quickly assembled a list of U.S. products on which to apply tariffs if Trump follows through.
“We will put tariffs on Harley-Davidson, on bourbon and on blue jeans — Levis,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told German television, according to Reuters.
Harley-Davidson is based in Milwaukee. The motorcycle company is celebrating its 115th year in business. Most of its motorcycles are sold through independent dealers, about 1,400 in 100 countries.
A Harley-Davidson spokesman declined to comment Friday on the tariff plan, saying the company wants to see more details.
Deller, the UW economist, said if Europe and other U.S. trade partners, chiefly China, respond with retaliatory tariffs or other measures, the odds of a U.S. economic recession in the near term could increase dramatically.
“This kind of ‘policy-by-tweet’ just creates a tremendous amount of uncertainty in the business community,” Deller said.
Walker says U.S. companies that will feel the negative impact of the tariffs can move their operations to another country, such as Canada, and not face new tariffs on the sale of their products.
He says “this scenario would lead to the exact opposite outcome of the administration’s stated objective, which is to protect American jobs.”
Walker says if Trump’s goal is to protect jobs, he should reconsider the tariffs, especially on ultra-thin aluminum.
The state’s politically influential business group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce also weighed in against the tariff proposal Friday.
“WMC understands and appreciates President Trump’s desire to protect U.S. industries from unfair trade practices,” said CEO, Kurt Bauer. “However, these tariffs on steel and aluminum will result in unintended consequences and retaliation that will negatively impact other U.S. and Wisconsin-made products.”
Walker’s stance shows Wisconsin Republicans increasingly at odds with Trump on the issue. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, who co-founded a manufacturing company, issued a statement Thursday opposing the tariffs.
The office of Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, did not comment on the tariffs in response to Wisconsin State Journal inquiries Thursday and Friday. Baldwin’s potential Republican opponents in the November election, state Sen. Leah Vukmir and businessman Kevin Nicholson, also did not respond.