Dozens of Wisconsin residents have contacted the office of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to protest his plan to kill a nearly 100-year-old, self-supporting state magazine that has previously been purged of content touching on politically sensitive environmental issues, according to records obtained by The Progressive.
Walker’s biennial state budget, unveiled in early February, included a call to suspend publication of Wisconsin Natural Resources in early 2018. The bimonthly magazine has nearly 90,000 paid subscribers and is produced by the state’s Department of Natural Resources. Walker’s office claims that doing away with the magazine will let the DNR focus more on its core mission.
But critics argue that educating the public on natural resource issues is central to that mission. They say the magazine helps the agency raise money, recruit volunteers, provide an outlet for staff, and promote tourism. And they note that killing the magazine will save no tax dollars, as it is entirely supported by subscribers, including those who support it through a small surcharge on conservation patron licenses.
All of the more than 150 citizen contacts released this week to The Progressive through an open-records request—including emails, letters, and postcards—are critical of the decision. The office also logged forty-six calls on the matter—all opposed.
“What is wrong with this state that you would end this publication[?]” wrote Brian Coon of Delavan, Walker’s hometown, on February 14. “I say it is a very bad move. I will join up with any others ready to defend this publication.”
“I have been a supporter of yours since the day you took office and continue to be to this day,” wrote Scott Williams in a February 15 email. But in light of the governor’s decision to end the magazine, he said, “It is starting to become hard . . . .”
“Your stated intention to eliminate the Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine has ended my remaining respect for you,” wrote Harry Syke of Ashland in a letter dated February 17. “You have systematically degraded this state’s environment and educational system. . . . Our children and grandchildren will bear the damaging costs of your legacy.”
“HOW MUCH MORE ARE YOU GOING TO TAKE AWAY FROM US BEFORE YOU LEAVE OFFICE?” demanded Marjorie Peterson of New Berlin in a typed letter dated February 14. “I’m glad I’m 92 and won’t have to live through much more.”
Other correspondents called the decision “disappointing,” “deplorable,” “shameful,” and “quite a disgrace.”
Natasha Kassulke, who served as the magazine’s editor from 2011 to mid-2016, has stated in an op-ed for the Progressive Media Project and elsewhere that she encountered what appeared to be politically motivated opposition to certain stories.
Following the magazine’s publication in 2013 of an insert on climate change funded by the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, Kassulke wrote, “all stories were vetted by officials within the state Department of Natural Resources. They spiked stories having to do with climate change, a federally endangered mammal living near a proposed iron mine, and challenges to the privatization of groundwater.”
Kassulke has said she quit the magazine believing “I had lost editorial control.”
According to Kassulke, the magazine is popular among a broad swath of the public. “[It] helps people, even those who can’t hunt or hike like they used to, stay connected to the state’s environment,” she wrote in the op-ed. “Among my favorite pieces were a story on preventing tree stand falls and another on guidance for keeping properties safe from wildfires. I once saw a man in a doctor’s office stealthily remove the magazine’s spring fishing forecast and stick it in his pocket as he left.”
The roughy 600 pages of records released to The Progressive include links to news coverage and communications with journalists. They provide insight into Walker and the DNR’s strategy for responding to concerns.
Asked by Glen Moberg of Wisconsin Public Radio to comment on “the criticism by some who claim it is an effort to suppress sensitive coverage of certain issues, including the effects of climate change in the state,” Walker press secretary Tom Everson responded, “That’s a ridiculous claim. The DNR is realigning to become more efficient and effective. This magazine is not a part of the DNR’s core mission. It is not the government’s role to produce magazines that duplicate what is available in the private market.”
Everson claimed that suspending publication would reduce staff by two full-time equivalent positions and save the state $136,200 in fiscal year 2018 and $544,800 in fiscal year 2019. He didn’t comment on how losing the magazine would reduce revenues through subscriptions or other economic benefits.
Larry Sperling,who edited the magazine from 2007 to 2011, prior to Kassulke, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Anybody who says this is being done for tax savings is hosing the public. There isn’t a lick of tax savings in it.”
The volume of negative response prompted an internal reaction. The records show that, on March 2, DNR spokesman Jim Dick produced a list of “Talking Points” in support of the magazine’s elimination, which he emailed to Evenson. These included:
- “The magazine has had a great run since it was first published as the Wisconsin Conservationist nearly a hundred years ago.” [ . . . ]
- “After completing our core work analysis during the alignment process, it became clear that we at the Wisconsin DNR are not magazine publishers.” [ . . . ]
- “Our time and resources can be better utilized by focusing on communication tools that are more immediate in this digital age and have the potential of spreading the word of DNR’s mission and work to a larger audience.” [ . . .]
The Talking Points noted the agency’s successful use of social media, including Facebook and Twitter, and even its use of videos posted on YouTube. It said “Even the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel”—Wisconsin’s largest newspaper—“recently announced substantial changes in its print edition because technology is changing the way people consume news and information through smartphones, tablets and the internet.”
Dick’s final talking point seemed to suggest that killing the magazine is not a done deal: “The budget process is far from over. The legislature still has its say before a final budget bill reaches the Governor’s desk, usually sometime in June.”