MADISON — The secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is stepping down after serving as head of the agency for four years, Gov. Tony Evers announced Friday.
Preston Cole will retire from the department on November 23 after a 35-year career in public service.
“Preston has been an integral part of my administration since day one, and we’re sorry to see him go,” Evers said. “With his help, we’ve brought science back to DNR, we’ve helped ensure Wisconsinites have cleaner, safer water, and we’re fighting climate change head-on, all while supporting our state park system and l outdoor recreational economy that so many Wisconsinites and visitors enjoy.”
Prior to Cole’s appointment in December 2018, he served for 11 years on the Natural Resources Council, the DNR’s policy-making body. He was appointed to the board by Democratic Governor Jim Doyle in 2007 and in 2013 by Republican Governor Scott Walker. He served as Chairman of the Board in 2013 and 2014.
Preston Cole focused on climate change strategies in Wisconsin, regulating PFAS
During his tenure at DNR, Cole oversaw the agency’s renewed focus on climate change impacts and the development of statewide resilience strategies, oversaw measures to ensure a clean drinking water for Wisconsin residents and efforts to take legal action against polluters.
Between 2019 and 2021, the ministry provided grants and loans to farmers, municipalities, and other stakeholders to promote clean water specifically, with Clean Water Fund grants totaling more than $587 million and more than $148 million in drinking water loans, according to the release.
One of Cole’s DNR goals was the regulation of “eternal chemicals” or PFAS. The agency took aggressive steps to regulate toxic substances in the state’s drinking, ground, and surface waters, and was ultimately successful in regulating drinking and surface waters. The agency relaunched the groundwater regulation process this fall, which will take about three years.
After:$4.5 million in federal funding for conservation projects, including Cedar Gorge in Ozaukee County
He also oversaw the programming of a system for Wisconsinans to purchase their state park stickers online during the height of the pandemic, making access to state parks safer and easier for a when attendance skyrocketed as people sought to get out more.
On wildlife, the DNR under Cole produced a draft wolf management plan, a process that had failed under several previous administrations. The plan was last updated in 2007; the project is currently in a public consultation period.
Cole’s time with MNR also came with the Natural Resources Council saga regarding Frederick Prehn
Cole’s tenure was also marred by tensions with the Natural Resources Council, particularly member Frederick Prehn.
Prehn, who was nominated by Walker, and Cole had public disagreements over hot-button issues, such as “forever chemicals” regulations and the wolf quota. The tension finally came to a head when the DNR refused to reschedule items and Prehn canceled the September 2021 meeting. The cancellation was the first in 21 years.
When Prehn voted in August 2021 to set a higher wolf kill quota than recommended by the DNR, Cole dove into the discussion.
“Now you know why he’s sitting in that chair,” Cole said, gesturing to Prehn, who remained on the board past his term as the Senate declined to hold a confirmation hearing for a appointee. Evers. “Now that’s clear, folks. Putting your thumb on your finger and tipping the scales, that’s what it’s all about here.”
After:Text messages show Frederick Prehn sought to remain on the DNR board to ensure conservative control
Cole also worked in Milwaukee and made Missouri history
Outside of the DNR, Cole served as Commissioner of the Milwaukee Neighborhood Services Department and Director of Operations for the City of Milwaukee Department of Public Works. He was also the first black forester hired by the Missouri Department of Conservation.
In the statement, Cole praised Evers for prioritizing environmental protection.
“Thank you to Governor Evers for ushering in a new era of environmental protection and conservation programs. His efforts to put the well-being of the people of Wisconsin first continue to resonate in every corner of our great state.” , he said in the statement.
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