The United Sportsmen controversy was, in many ways, a familiar Walker administration scandal.
All the elements were there. A politically wired conservative group gets money thanks to its connections to state Republicans -- in this case, a $500,000 grant slipped into the state budget to promote hunting, fishing and trapping. Republicans connected with Walker throw over the normal competitive bidding process in order to steer money to their friends.
The political nature of the deal could not be clearer. As Jason Stein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, United Sportsmen has done lobbying work for a mine and political work for state Republicans, but it hasn't ever run a class on hunting or fishing -- exactly the skills required by the grant.
After details emerged on the front pages of newspapers across the state about the group's president shooting a bear without a license, lying about it, and trying to pin it on someone else, not to mention misrepresenting his group's tax-exempt status, the Walker administration was finally embarrassed enough to pull the plug. But what the whole United Sportsmen scandal really shows is that the administration does not share Wisconsin values.
Wisconsinites love to hunt and fish. So when a University of Wisconsin study (PDF) came out showing that the number of male deer hunters in the state was expected to decline from 550,000 to about 425,000 over the next 17 years, officials at the Department of Natural Resources took it seriously. (Female deer hunters are expected to increase from about 50,000 to about 75,000 over the same period, but that won't make up for the decline.)
According to a neighbor of mine, Keith Warnke, who happens to be both a great outdoorsman and the hunting and shooting sports coordinator for the DNR, the decline in hunters is a problem for deer population, for the environment, and for the state's cultural heritage.
"It's about society losing track of how we get our food and where it comes from," he says. "And it's about our longstanding conservation legacy."
Warnke points out that Wisconsin's hunters and anglers are directly responsible for the great majority of the funds the state spends on maintaining our wildnerness, through license fees and excise taxes.
"Whether it's restoring wetlands or burning the prairie, everything from pheasant stocking to restoring oak savannas, less than 5% of the funds we use comes from someone other than hunters or anglers," Warnke says.
"Think of Horicon Marsh, or any wonderful wildlife area you like to visit. Management benefits everyone. It supports populations of chickadees we all enjoy watching around the bird feeder as well as game birds," he adds.
What does United Sportsmen have to do with all that?
Since it was formed two years ago, the group has spent a lot of money lobbying for a wolf hunt, easier access to wetlands by developers, and the massive open-pit mine proposed by Gogebic Taconite in northern Wisconsin -- including a measure to keep hunters and other outdoorsmen off the land where GTAC wants to build its mine.
Doesn't sound like much of a conservation group, does it?
Oh, and it sent out a mailing, along with Americans for Prosperity, supporting Republicans in the 2011 recall elections.
Former Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, who is about to start making a big salary as a Walker appointee to the Public Service Commission, carefully crafted grant language to exclude real conservation groups from getting the $500,000 state grant. If you were a chapter of a larger, national organization, you were not eligible for the money.
Suder rigged the grant for United Sportsmen. But also, by writing the rules the way he did, he jeopardized $28 million a year in federal wildlife management funds.
Talk about not upholding Wisconsin values.
You want to see Wisconsin values? Meet my neighbor.
He and I have very different views on issues like gun control. A lifelong hunter who spends most weekends up at his cabin, he taught my daughter's Girl Scout troop to band birds, is raising his own daughters to hunt, fish, and dress a deer, and has no problem working with the NRA teaching gun safety.
We don't talk about politics much. And he is too diplomatic -- and too smart -- to say anything bad about United Sportsmen.
But here is what he does say: "We have a longstanding conservation legacy in Wisconsin. Whether you enjoy hiking in the woods, or bird-watching, or you are a hunter, we all have this strong connection to a sound, solid environment and conservation."
That's the legacy Walker and Suder are trampling. It's about values that are much more enduring than the self-interested, inside politics this administration is practicing.
As Wisconsinites, liberal or conservative, we all have a stake in protecting those values.
Ruth Conniff is the editor of The Progressive.