For anyone who values the importance of direct citizen input in government—and we do—there was an anniversary recently that should not go unnoticed.

The Wisconsin Conservation Congress formally marked its 85th anniversary as delegates gathered in Appleton for its annual convention in a spirited fashion. For decades, the conservation congress has been a sounding board for the state Department of Natural Resources—and a valuable one, at that—in setting and modifying fish and game regulations as well as other conservation issues affecting the lands and waters of the state.

The Congress does so through its annual spring meetings, a vast statewide referendum in April each year in which hunters, fishers and other citizens weigh in on proposed fish and wildlife rules in counties across the state and that input is given to the DNR and its governing Natural Resources Board.

It also offers state outdoors enthusiasts the chance to craft their own proposals and put them to a vote in their home county—if their suggestion wins passage, it goes to an advisory board of the congress; if approved, it can be placed on the statewide ballot the next year.

It is a remarkable and unique setup among the states for policymakers to gain insight into public opinion on issues they are concerned about and translate them into fish and game rule changes.

DNR Secretary Preston Cole, newly appointed by Gov. Tony Evers, lauded the congress for those years of advice at the group’s convention.

“I remind folks that you won’t see this setup anyplace else in the world but Wisconsin,” he told the 300 delegates. “We have to be proud of that fact. This is Wisconsin’s way of doing business as it relates to natural resource management.”

That’s not to say it’s always been a smooth marriage—there have been some contentious encounters and disagreements over the years. Cole referred to them as “times when we have lots of interesting debates.”

Yes, some of those debates roil the congress as well.

The congress rejected a proposed bounty system to pay deer hunters for deer carcasses infected with chronic wasting disease, even though 60 percent of those who took part in this year’s spring hearings approved such a measure.

Disagreements, of course, are bound to happen, particularly in a state with great and closely held traditions of hunting and fishing, and respect for the game, the land and the waters. As always, those game and conservation concerns have to be balanced against sometimes other, competing state interests—agriculture, tourism, business, industry and land ownership.

That can be a difficult process, and the steady input of advice from conservationists and sportsmen in the Wisconsin Conservation Congress have helped the state negotiate it for more than eight decades with remarkable results.

For that, they deserve a wish of “Happy Anniversary” and our thanks.

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