MADISON (WKOW) -- The first Earth Day 50 years ago led to ten years of unprecedented legislation to protect the environment, but many believe that progress came when bipartisanship was at its peak.
In recent years, our environment is becoming a polarizing issue, with elected officials disagreeing about what’s best for our air, water, and land.
Years ago, finding compromise to help protect our state’s resources wasn’t always such a challenge.
Former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson, who calls himself an environmentalist, said when he was in office he purchased more land than any other administration.
“Democrat, Republican, Independent we purchased the most but I had tremendous bipartisan support," said Thompson.
The longest-serving governor said a prime example of bringing both parties together was signing a bill to protect the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, spanning more than 90 miles from Prairie Du Sac to the Mississippi River.
"Nobody said it was possible," said Thompson. “A lot of opposition, but now there's none and it just shows you know that if you do the right thing people will come around and say, 'I'm so happy you did it'."
Thompson said the riverway is a valuable lesson for politicians today. No one person took credit, no anniversaries, major celebrations or power grabs. That’s why this year he’s hoping to make protecting our environment a bipartisan effort again.
Some of the most recent policy changes to our environment came during former Republican Governor Scott Walker's tenure.
Since 2011, Republicans eased pollution enforcement, rolled back protections for groundwater, gutted scientific research at the Department of Natural Resources and removed language about climate change from the DNR's website.
As governor, Walker also rolled back forward-thinking programs that would have helped prepare the state for the future of renewable energy and sustainable growth.
Frustration grew, causing some voters to rethink who they might cast a ballot for in 2018, as then-Democratic candidate Tony Evers campaigned hard against Walker's environmental policies.
In 2019, Democrats were finally able to get a seat at the negotiating table, electing Evers and Democrats to every constitutional office.
Governor Evers and Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes campaigned to bring science back to the DNR and continue to advocate for renewable energy and preserving our land and water.
Evers' first year in office established a bipartisan climate change task force, chaired by Barnes. They are responsible for developing ways to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. Their findings are due this summer.
"First, it starts with the acknowledgment that climate change is, in fact, a real thing that has been caused by people's misuse and abuse of the resources that we do have,” said Barnes.
Barnes agrees with Thompson that environmental issues are becoming more partisan, but believes the state is making improvements for our future generation.
Polices such as removing forever-chemicals, known as PFAS, from our drinking water received bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled legislature this year.
Governor Evers also committed to transitioning Wisconsin to 100% renewable energy sources by 2030. Last August, Evers pledged to make that net-zero transition by 2050.
Both parties seem to be turning a new leaf to address concerns about our air, water, and land, but Barnes believes one barrier is proving our environment needs attention now to take action sooner rather than later.
“Develop that appreciation then we'll all be in a position that we'll all start to think about making better earth-conscious decisions," said Barnes.