A half a million taxpayer dollars will go to a new conservation group, despite objections at a Department of Natural Resources committee hearing Thursday.
DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp officially awarded the grant late Thursday after the committee took public testimony on the Sporting Heritage Program grant Thursday morning.
The grant program was a late addition to the state budget by Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, and some at the hearing questioned whether the grant was meant to have any competition at all.
Encouraging a passion for hunting and fishing and providing training and education is the aim of the $500,000 grant in the DNR's budget. But the agency got only one application for the program.
"To get only one application appears to me to be quite odd," said Ray Anderson, a hunter's safety instructor at the hearing Thursday.
That one application is from the United Sportsmen of Wisconsin Foundation, a brand-new non-profit that's a spinoff from a two-year-old group that primarily lobbied on hunting issues.
"They do not have experience with firearms safety and do not have a history of working directly with hunters," said Jennifer Geigerich with the League of Conservation Voters.
Members of the group have worked with Suder. His former chief of staff and some former donors are on the nonprofit's board.
The measure was drafted so that conservation groups with national affiliations weren't eligible.
"Normally, you develop administrative rules and criteria so the public can know they have to meet this and this and this, and it can be audited so the public knows this is being spent properly," said Tom Thoreson, of Fitchburg, a former DNR employee who worked with grant programs. "That's all missing here."
Committee chair and DNR Executive Assistant Scott Gunderson was among the committee members to recommend the grant be approved. The committee's legal counsel said that by law, the grant must be awarded and that this organization met all criteria to get it.
"We're just going to have to make sure we do our due diligence to follow up and make sure that there are goals and solid outcomes," said Gunderson.
Suder did not return calls for comment from WISC-TV Thursday. He will leave the legislature for a job at the Public Service Commission next week.
The President of United Sportsmen of Wisconsin Foundation, Andy Pantzlaff, also did not return calls. He told the committee Thursday that the group plans to begin training and education programs if awarded the grant.
Stepp said in a statement Thursday that the group did meet minimum requirements for the grant, but she would make sure accountability measures were in place when the contract was awarded.