MADISON, Wis. — Gov. Scott Walker picked former legislator Dan Meyer to serve as the next state Department of Natural Resources secretary Monday, placing his old state Assembly colleague in the middle of contentious political battles over mining, permitting a massive electronics plant and chronic wasting disease.
Meyer and Walker served together in the state Assembly for three years in the early 2000s before Walker won election as Milwaukee County executive. Meyer went on to serve on the powerful Joint Finance Committee for eight years, including four as vice chairman, and voted for Walker's signature law stripping most public employees of their union rights before he retired in 2013.
He replaces Cathy Stepp, a former Republican state senator. She resigned as secretary in August to join the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Donald Trump's administration.
"(Meyer) understands the balance between protecting our natural resources and supporting economic prosperity in our state," Walker said in a news release.
Meyer, 68, hails from Eagle River, a city of about 1,420 people 20 miles from Wisconsin's border with Michigan's Upper Peninsula. He has served as the city's mayor and executive director of the city's chamber of commerce. He didn't immediately return a telephone message from The Associated Press on Monday afternoon but said in the news release that he was honored to be appointed secretary.
"Our state is blessed with an abundance of natural resources, and we will work to responsibly protect them and ensure they remain a source of recreation, tourism, economic growth, and rich natural history now and for our children," he said.
Meyer inherits an agency that has taken plenty of criticism during Stepp's tenure for shifting away from protecting natural resources and science-based decisions to helping businesses clear regulatory hurdles.
One of the most immediate issues he'll face is navigating a Republican drive to re-start sulfide mining in northern Wisconsin. Sen. Tom Tiffany, whose district includes Eagle River, has introduced a bill to lift the state's moratorium on the industry, enraging conservationists.
Meyer also will serve as the decision-maker on environmental permitting decisions for a 20-million-square-foot Foxconn Technology Group flat-screen plant in southeastern Wisconsin. Walker signed a $3 billion incentives bill for the company last week that exempts it from a host of environmental regulations, setting the stage for potential lawsuits from conservationists.
And like a line of DNR secretaries before him he'll have to deal — or not deal — with chronic wasting disease, a deadly deer brain disease that threatens Wisconsin's rich deer-hunting traditions. Walker has directed the department to take a largely hands-off approach to the disease, which has affected 43 of the state's 72 counties.
George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and a former DNR secretary under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, said he worked with Dan Meyer when he was in the Assembly and Walker's appointee has a better outdoors background than Stepp. DNR records show Dan Meyer has held multiple state hunting licenses dating back to 1999.
Larry Bonde, chairman of the Conservation Congress, a group of sportsmen who advise the DNR on policy, said Dan Meyer has an extensive hunting and fishing background and he's glad someone with "at least some knowledge" of outdoor sports is now in charge. But he said he doesn't expect much change since Dan Meyer is a Walker appointee.
Jennifer Giegerich, a lobbyist for Wisconsin Conservation Voters, Meyer didn't consistently champion conservation issues during his stint in the Legislature. She said that her organization's records show he voted for a bill that would have given the DNR board the ability to appoint the secretary in 2009 but voted to end the state's land stewardship program in the 2007-09 state budget.
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's largest business group, issued a news release Monday praising Meyer's selection, saying the business community looks forward to working with him.