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Wisconsin DNR secretary Stepp leaving agency for EPA

File photo (WLUK/Scott Hurley)

MADISON (AP) -- The longtime head of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, who faced criticism that she emphasized economic development over protecting the state's environment, is leaving for a job in President Donald Trump's administration.

Cathy Stepp, a former Republican state senator who was DNR secretary since 2011, is resigning to become a deputy administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Gov. Scott Walker announced Tuesday that Stepp will be based in the EPA's Region 7 office which oversees Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and nine tribal nations.

"Cathy is a strong, trusted reformer who will serve the country well at the EPA," Walker said in a statement. He lauded Stepp for leading "an outstanding workforce committed to preserving and promoting our natural resources while placing a strong focus on customer service and common sense."

Walker appointed Deputy Secretary Kurt Thiede to serve as interim secretary effective Thursday.

Stepp led a reorganization of the department that included staffing cuts in its science and research bureau. The agency's approach to a proposed iron mine in northern Wisconsin, large water wells in central Wisconsin and how to deal with chronic wasting disease in deer also drew criticism from sporting groups, environmentalists, Democrats and others.

Stepp presided over the DNR at a time when fees increased for state parks and campsites and purchases decreased of land to be protected through the Stewardship Program. She also drew heat this year for supporting the shutdown of a popular conservation magazine, a move blocked by the Legislature.

"I'm excited about the possibility of bringing some of the reforms we've been able to put in place here in Wisconsin to the national stage," Stepp said in an email to DNR employees announcing her move.

Former DNR Secretary George Meyer said Stepp's protection of the state's natural resources was the weakest of the past seven secretaries he's worked with. Meyer, who now heads the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said she would be remembered for "dismantling significant portions of environmental protections in the state of Wisconsin."

"As a secretary you have to have a balance of protecting the environment and making sure that you are protecting or undertaking things that are reasonable for economic development in the state," Meyer said. "There's a balance. That's always been well done in this state, but under Secretary Stepp the balance has always been very strongly to economic development often at the detriment of environmental resources."

Through a spokesman, Stepp declined to respond to Meyer. But in a separate statement, Stepp defended her tenure, saying "We've demonstrated how we can have job creation and environmental protection."

While Stepp often butted heads with Meyer and other environmentalists, her six-plus years at the agency won widespread praise from Republicans who said she helped to make DNR more responsive to consumers without putting natural resources at risk.

"She has made a positive impact on the DNR during her years as secretary by improving customer service, simplifying the permitting process and protecting our precious natural resources," Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in a statement.

Stepp, 54, served in the state Senate from 2003 to 2007.

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