‘This is my choice’: Despite expired term, chair of state Natural Resources Board says he’s still not leaving

MADISON, Wis. — Despite his six-year term expiring on May 1, Dr. Frederick Prehn still gaveled in as chair to Wednesday’s June meeting of the Natural Resources Board, the policy governing board for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Nearly two months since his board term expired and Gov. Evers appointed his replacement, Sandra Dee E. Nass of Ashland, he’s holding on to a rarely-used state law to buck a tradition that nearly every NRB member has adhered to throughout its history. The law allows for the senate to confirm a governor’s choice for the board; throughout the board’s 53-year history, members largely step aside instead.

Prehn, a Wausau dentist, says he understands that–but has decided instead to follow the little-used state statute after critical coverage from a media columnist and what he said was hundreds of emails, including death threats, calling for him to step down.

“I don’t react well to threatening emails or name-calling, I just don’t,” Prehn said Friday. “I’m a respected individual from Wausau…and I will not bow to political pressure from anybody.”

Currently, he says, the only reason he will vacate his seat is once the state senate were to confirm a replacement. That decision may have been different earlier, he said. But now, “I’m pretty upset.”

Why Prehn says he’s staying

Ensuring the controversial wolf hunt in Wisconsin is one of his top priorities that keeps him from leaving the board, he said. Wolf management returned to state control after the Trump administration removed wolves from the protected species list in January. The DNR opened the hunt in February this year after a hunters group sued.

“We got a lot done,” he said of his six years on the board. Going forward, “I am just doing my job.”

But Prehn also blames articles and emails from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel outdoors editor and columnist Paul Smith for his decision to not step down from the NRB. On May 23, three days before the next meeting after the expiration of Prehn’s term, Smith reported Prehn’s decision not to vacate his seat. Prehn said he hadn’t made up his mind about what he would do before then, and hadn’t been told until April 30 that Gov. Evers hadn’t reappointed him. His term expired May 1.

“I took a pause in May, and now it’s an all-out assassination of my character,” Prehn said.

“He’s trying to claim factual accounts of his actions are “character assassination,” Smith said in response to a request for comment. “He alone decided to remain on the board after his term expired. And now he’s trying to shift blame for that decision.”

Prehn said it dated back to a mid-April exchange of emails that angered him, between him and Smith. Prehn had told the columnist on April 15 that “I take it day by day. I know you would love me gone LOL.”

“While I don’t agree with all your positions or views, if Gov. Evers appoints you I would be glad to have you serve another term,” Smith responded. “If you are not appointed and pull some stunt to try and prevent a legitimate appointee from taking his/her seat on the board, then yes, you can’t be gone soon enough.”

“This is my choice,” Prehn told News 3. “I’ll decide when to vacate or the senate will confirm as they should be, hold the confirmation hearings, and then I will vacate according to state law.”

Smith said his columns were defending the non-partisan legacy and intent of the Natural Resources Board; according to his analysis, just two members have taken the same route over the board’s 53-year history. “Fred Prehn has opted to deviate from the norms and decency that have been the hallmark of the citizen board for 53 years.”

NRB tension as meetings continue

Evers-appointed Marcy West, on the NRB since last year, asked to discuss a clarification of the rules of board chair elections at the next meeting to avoid confusion if future expired board members also were in control of the board as chair.

“I think it puts everyone in an awkward situation,” she said at Wednesday’s meeting.

Prehns said this was his third election to be chair of the board; he was unanimously elected by the 7-member body to serve as chairman before his term expired on May 1. “Marcy, do you deny that this seat is legally held by me?” Prehn asked, before stating again that he intended to remain in his seat until he chose to leave or the state senate confirmed another appointment.

“The point that we’re at right now does not just impact you, sir,” West said. “It impacts all of us.”

Senate leader Devin Lemahieu (R-Oostburg) wasn’t available for comment Friday on whether the senate would schedule a confirmation hearing for Gov. Evers’ appointee. There’s political overtones to the battle: Walker-era appointees remain in the majority on the NRB; that would change should Prehn step down. Now, he wants to force the senate confirmation.

“Evers needs to pick people that the legislators can get along with.”