Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp stopped in Beloit Tuesday to talk with the Beloit Daily News about her department’s efforts to become more customer-friendly and shed the organization’s reputation for being anti-business.
And as part of the DNR’s goal to streamline and simplify permitting processes, Stepp said the DNR is working to help make the Powerhouse project in Beloit a reality. Beloit College is working with Alliant Energy and the Wisconsin DNR to identify problems and needs associated with renovating Blackhawk Generating Station, the old power plant on Riverside Drive, into a recreation and student center for the college.
Stepp said she believes a healthy environment leads to a healthy economy for Wisconsin, and vice versa. To accomplish Gov. Scott Walker’s goals for creating jobs in Wisconsin, Stepp said it’s more important than ever to help businesses navigate through the permitting process.
“We are a permitting agency rather than a prohibitive agency,” Stepp added.
Stepp encourages businesses to call the DNR first so the agency can work with businesses to identify issues and develop plans to work through the process.
“Let me help you walk through process,” she said. “We (the DNR) can be the biggest hurdle, or help, to businesses navigating through the system to create jobs.”
One of Stepp’s goals is to get staff “out from under the florescent lights and to the stream banks.”
The time required to obtain permits has been cut, especially when it comes to air and water permits, she said. Under her leadership she said the DNR’s been prioritizing its workload, identifying its core deliverables and streamlining services.
As part of that process, Stepp said, the DNR has created an Office of Business Support and Sustainability, establishing 11 sector specialists who are familiar with the needs of certain industries.
One of the industries which the DNR will be working closely with is mining, as it enforces the laws set forth in a new bill signed this spring. When it comes to the Gogebic Taconite mining proposal in northern Wisconsin, Stepp said the DNR’s role is to be strictly a science and data resource for policy makers to draw from as the permitting process proceeds.
Stepp went on to say she was comfortable with the bill signed this spring easing the state’s mining regulations, noting the biggest change in mining law has been providing an end date for the department to say yes or no to projects.
Gogebic Taconite wants to excavate an open pit mine south of Lake Superior, which has been a concern to environmentalists worried it could pollute the area’s rich natural resources, and has culminated in protests around the site. Stepp stressed that the DNR has not granted approval for the project, although the agency would work with Gogebic Taconite to assist them in the permit application process.
“They are in the exploratory drilling phase. Our staff been to the site several times,” she said.
The DNR is also working to assist industry with an increasing amount of frac sand mining operations in western Wisconsin. The sand is used at gas or oil fields out-of-state for hydraulic fracturing — better known as fracking — to extract gas and/or crude oil from rock formations.
With all that is on the DNR’s radar Stepp said she spends much of her time in discussions with Native American tribes, covering a variety of topics including mining as well as wolf hunting and walleye fishing.
With an increasing wolf numbers, the DNR has been working to manage the population while respecting the spiritual connections the tribes have to the animals, as well as other activists’ concerns, Stepp said.
She said the DNR is working to rebuild trust with the hunting community and to keep outdoors activities fun, whether for deer, fish or wolves.