Evers Seeks Fresh Faces On Natural Resources Board, But Current Chair Isn’t Stepping Down Yet

A political tug of war might play out on the policy-setting board for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources now that Chair Fred Prehn has decided not to step down following the expiration of his term.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers announced the appointments of Sandy Naas and Sharon Adams on April 30 “to fill vacancies created by the expiring terms” of Prehn and Board Secretary Julie Anderson. However, only Anderson has stepped down. Both were appointed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker for six-year terms that expired May 1. 

Prehn has decided to remain on the board until the state Senate confirms Evers’ nominations. The Wausau dentist and owner of Cranberry Co. was elected to his third term as the board’s chairman in January. He called portrayals of his decision in the media a character assassination, insisting the move isn’t political. 

“There’s so many things happening on the Natural Resources Board right now. There’s a lot of topics that I think the board can use my leadership until a replacement is confirmed,” said Prehn.

Prehn pointed to proposed regulations regarding nitrate, water and wolf management that will be coming before the board. On Wednesday, the board is set to authorize whether to hold a public hearing on proposed changes to wolf harvest regulations. 

Prehn said he’s merely following the process. 

“I felt like I at least have to finish my term as elected chairman, which runs ’til January. And so, I was waiting (for) confirmation and am waiting for confirmation from the senators on the nominee,” said Prehn. “Some people decide to leave. Some people don’t. It’s not the first time this has happened on this board.”

It might not be the first time that a board member has decided to remain in their seat following the expiration of a term. Still, George Meyer, a former DNR Secretary, said it’s unusual. He could only recall two board members remaining past the expiration of their terms in the early 2000s: Steve Willett and Jim Tiefenthaler Jr.

When board members stay past their terms, Meyer said it goes against the intent of a gradual transition of power. He considered it a way to prevent the governor of one party from having control of the board. 

Milwaukee resident Sharon Adams, who founded the Walnut Way Conservation Corp. and has advised Milwaukee on natural resources policy, will assume a position on the board since Anderson has stepped down. Naas, who has more than 30 years of conservation experience, will be absent as Prehn remains in his seat. Naas chairs the Bayfield County Conservation Congress and serves as vice-chair of the county’s deer advisory council. 

“(Naas is) very well qualified and clearly understands the wolf issues and water,” said Meyer. 

Naas declined to comment about the matter on Monday. The Wisconsin DNR referred comments to the governor’s office. Representatives for Evers and Senate Republican lawmakers also declined to speak or provide comments on the issue. 

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 7:10 a.m. on May 25, 2021, with additional context on the legal basis regarding holdover appointments.