Wisconsin takes aim at outdoors magazine, subscribers erupt
Twenty years of back issues in Jim Stroschein’s attic attest to his love of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ magazine. Since 1919, the publication has featured stories and photos highlighting Wisconsin’s natural splendor, from where to hunt, fish, hike and camp to what it’s like to own a north woods cabin.
If Republican Gov. Scott Walker gets his way, this will be the magazine’s last year. Even though it is sustained entirely by subscribers — it had nearly 84,000 as of December — Walker’s proposed budget would end it next February. He argues that the state shouldn’t be in the publishing business and that the DNR can reach more people through social media.
The proposal has outraged subscribers, particularly older ones who don’t rely on the internet for news, and has Democrats wondering if the pro-industry governor wants to pull the plug because the publication promotes science.
"To take away this tremendous communication tool, which costs them nothing, is really short-sighted," said Stroschein, 54, of Mineral Point. "I don’t understand it."
At least a dozen states publish magazines detailing their environmental and wildlife agencies’ work, regarding them as a public relations vehicle. Wisconsin’s, which comes out every two months, typically runs articles by agency staff and freelancers accompanied by gorgeous photographs of wildlife and the outdoors. The April issue has a list of outdoor trips for the public, a staff story on a state nature preserve, and contributor pieces on kids’ efforts to build better birdhouses and how a ruffed grouse followed a man’s aunt around in 1950.
DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, a Walker appointee, told legislators last month that DNR employees lose time from core duties when they work on articles and that subscription revenue doesn’t make up for the lost hours. Echoing her boss, she said the agency could reach more people through social media.
That’s the same argument that former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley made when they eliminated their states’ magazines in the last few years. Like Walker, they are both Republicans.
Some Wisconsin conservationists and Democrats aren’t buying the explanation. They believe the move reflects the de-emphasis of science and education at the DNR under Walker. The DNR recently scrubbed language from an agency webpage that stated human activity was a major cause of climate change, despite overwhelming evidence that it is, and replaced it with language that said the causes of global warming are still being debated. That move came after the state budget Walker signed in 2015 cut half the positions in the DNR’s science bureau.
Natasha Kassulke, who used to edit the DNR magazine, said agency executives began vetting content after a story on climate change ran in 2013. She said they spiked a story she wrote on the endangered American pine marten because it included a map showing that the creature inhabits an area near Lake Superior that had been slated for a contentious iron mine project. She said they also killed a story she wrote on how mammals will cope with climate change, telling her the terms "climate change" and "global warming" were forbidden.
Kassulke said she quit last summer because the editing had become so draconian.
"There are things in the magazine Walker hasn’t liked," said state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Middleton Democrat who sits on the budget committee. "People like to sit down with something in their hand and read it outside of their smartphone or their tablet. It pays for itself. It’s not a waste of staff time. It’s more a matter of Scott Walker trying to control the message."
Walker included the elimination
DNR spokesman James Dick declined to comment, saying the agency stands by Stepp’s testimony to the budget committee.
Legislators could save the magazine as they revise Walker’s budget. Nearly 3,000 people have subscribed and another 1,200 have renewed since Walker released the budget in February. The committee’s Republican members say they have heard from many constituents asking to spare the magazine.
Louisiana’s current governor, Democrat John Bel Edwards, decided last year to bring back the "Louisiana Conservationist" in a limited format. Rather than mail magazines to subscribers, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries places 7,500 free issues in its field offices.
"Everybody seems to like it, especially those old-timers, who seemed to miss it," said agency spokesman Rene LeBreton.
Jim Shavlik, 80, of Crivitz, said he’s subscribed to the Wisconsin magazine for more years than he can remember. He sent an email to legislators warning them if the magazine dies he’ll quit volunteering to sample area water quality for the DNR.
"I do not like looking at a screen," Shavlik said. "I just like a piece of paper in front of me. If they have a good reason (for eliminating the magazine), I can live with it. So far I haven’t heard a good reason."