Why won’t Prehn step down from the DNR board? What you need to know

Eufemia Didonato

Frederick Prehn has become a divisive figure over the last few months in Wisconsin’s natural resources management. After refusing to step down from the Natural Resources Board at the end of his term in May, he has continued to cause controversy and tension among the natural resources community.  Here’s what you need […]

Frederick Prehn has become a divisive figure over the last few months in Wisconsin’s natural resources management. After refusing to step down from the Natural Resources Board at the end of his term in May, he has continued to cause controversy and tension among the natural resources community. 

Here’s what you need to know about Prehn and his continuing term on the board. 

Who is Frederick Prehn? 

Prehn is a Wausau dentist and gun store owner, and recently sold a cranberry marsh. He was appointed to the Natural Resources Board in 2015 by Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Prehn is currently serving as the chair of the board, his third consecutive time being elected to the role. 

What is the Natural Resources Board? 

The NRB sets policy for the Department of Natural Resources and exercises authority and responsibility in accordance with state laws, according to the DNR website. It holds meetings on a monthly basis. 

The board is made up of seven members who are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. Members have overlapping terms so the board may not be “stacked” with members appointed by only one governor during his or her term. 

Why is Prehn refusing to step down from the board? 

During a June interview, Prehn said he was contemplating stepping down before the new appointees were announced by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers at the end of April. But after newspaper columns and criticism from Wisconsin residents in the wake of refusing to step down in May, Prehn said he decided to “dig in his heels.” 

Prehn has also cited wanting to have input on important upcoming issues the board will be taking a vote on. One such issue was the quota for the fall wolf hunt, which the board set at 300 animals, despite guidance from the department for a quota of about 130 wolves. The issue was decided by a 5-2 vote in favor of the 300-wolf quota, but newly appointed member Sharon Adams said she did not mean to vote yes for the number, and was confused when she did so.

If Adams had voted against the quota, the decision would have come down to Prehn’s yes vote, something that environmental groups have expressed concern over. 

Other upcoming issues include regulations for PFAS or “forever chemicals” in ground, surface and drinking water and new regulations for metallic mining. 

Prehn has repeatedly said his refusal to step down is not because his successor is unqualified, but because he wants to remain on the board and believes Evers should have reappointed him.   

Who was appointed to take Prehn’s spot on the board? 

Sandra Dee Naas, of Ashland, was appointed on April 30. Naas has more than 30 years of experience with conservation and owns an environmental consulting firm. 

Is Prehn’s refusal to step down legal?

Prehn and his supporters have cited a 1964 Supreme Court decision that says board members can stay on after their term expires until a replacement is confirmed by the state Senate. So far, leaders of the Republican-run Senate have given no indication that they plan to schedule hearings for any of Evers’ appointees, including the two newly appointed NRB members. 

That Supreme Court decision was upheld Sept. 17 by Dane County Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn, who dismissed a lawsuit filed in August by Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul arguing the 1964 ruling no longer holds because state law has changed since then.   

Did anyone advise Prehn about remaining on the board? 

Prehn originally told reporters in June that he hadn’t heard anything from state senators about retaining his seat, and wasn’t advised to remain. 

However, according to emails obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the board chairman solicited advice from and shared information with several people since May, including Madison lobbyist Scott Meyer, U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany and former University of Wisconsin regent Gerald Whitburn. 

Included in the emails was an exchange on May 25 that revealed Prehn called the office of Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, to inquire about his ability to remain in his seat. 

Though details of that phone call are not available, a follow-up email was sent to the chairman by an aide to LeMahieu, including an attached memo from the Legislative Reference Bureau explaining the state statute allowing him to retain his seat until his successor is confirmed by the Senate.   

Things are getting messy 

The circumstances surrounding Prehn have created tension for the Natural Resources Board and the Department of Natural Resources. 

At meetings, board members are visibly tense and DNR Secretary Preston Cole has expressed frustration with Prehn for refusing to step down and turning natural resource management political. It’s caused an apparent rift between the board and the department it sets policy for. 

Environmental groups have also expressed outrage over Prehn’s continuing presence on the board, saying his actions are politicizing the board and natural resources, two things that shouldn’t be affected by partisan ideas. 

And the attorney general’s lawsuit may not be over yet despite the Sept. 17 circuit court ruling dismissing it.

Kaul said he was making immediate plans to appeal. 

“The court’s ruling makes clear that there are strong legal arguments for finding that Dr. Prehn is no longer a member of the Natural Resources Board, but the court concluded that, in light of precedent from 1964, such a ruling would have to be made by the Wisconsin Supreme Court,” he said. 

Has this happened before? 

Two other members of the Natural Resources Board have used the 1964 Supreme Court decision to justify remaining on the board: Jim Tiefenthaler Jr. and Steven Willett in the 2000s.

But former DNR Secretary George Meyer said Prehn’s situation marks a break with tradition for the board, in which members elect to step down at the end of their term if they’re not reappointed. Meyer, who was secretary under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, said the staggered terms of board members are made so that there aren’t dramatic changes in policy between Republican and Democratic governors. 

“It’s set up so you don’t get dramatic swings in policy-making from one political philosophy to another,” he said.

What’s happening now?

Prehn’s refusal to step down is seemingly having effect on the board itself, too. 

Prehn made the decision to cancel the September meeting, the first time a meeting has been canceled in 21 years. 

Prehn announced the cancellation of the meeting through his attorney, saying the department would not be proposing any agenda items for the meeting, nor providing staff. Prehn said he decided to cancel the meeting as the board can’t function without the department’s participation. 

Prehn said he believes the decision to not forward any items to the board is related to his continued refusal to step down from his seat on the board, despite the fact his term expired in May. 

“This is an unfortunate decision by the Department, as September meetings have historically had a robust agenda in the heart of the hunting seasons,” he said. “I am deeply concerned that the Department has made this political decision contrary to state statutes, which say that the Department is under the direction and supervision of the NRB.”

The DNR disputed Prehn’s claim that the lack of agenda items was political, and simply said there were no items for the agenda.  

What we’ve reported

Calls have come for Frederick Prehn to vacate his Natural Resources Board seat. Here’s why he says he isn’t going anywhere.

Paul Smith commentary: A resources board member whose term expired isn’t vacating his seat. It may be legal, but it’s definitely not right.

Paul Smith commentary: Prehn continues to trample on NRB’s non-partisan legacy

‘Wisconsin deserves better’: Advocates, public decry Prehn’s refusal to leave Natural Resources Board after term expired

Prehn corresponded with Republican leadership about decision not to step down from Natural Resources Board, emails show

Embattled chair of Natural Resources Board cancels September meeting after DNR provides no agenda items

Dane County judge dismisses Attorney General’s lawsuit aiming to unseat embattled Natural Resources Board chair Prehn

How to reach the public officials involved

Contact Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu at [email protected] or 608-266-2056

You can find out who your legislators are and how to contact them here.

Contact Frederick Prehn by sending him an email via NRB liaison Laurie Ross at [email protected] 

About this feature

This is a weekly feature for online and Sunday print readers delving into an issue in the news and explaining the actions of policymakers. Email suggestions for future topics to [email protected]

Laura Schulte can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura

Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.

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