Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston D. Cole first became a member of the state’s Natural Resources Board in 2007. He has previously worked as parks superintendent for the City of St. Louis, operations chief for the Milwaukee Department of Public Works and earlier as the City of Milwaukee forester. Most recently, Secretary Cole was the commissioner of the Milwaukee Department of Neighborhood Services. Secretary Cole recently discussed his rise from his youth in Michigan, through his time as Milwaukee’s “Tree Guy” to his current position as head of the DNR with the La Crosse Independent’s Jonathan Maye-Cates.
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JMC: Secy. Cole, what was the impetus that prompted a young Black man from Benton Harbor, Michiagan, to get involved in Future Farmers of America, and subsequently become the Cabinet Secretary for one of Wisconsin’s most powerful agencies, the Department of Natural Resources?
PC: Growing up in a rural Michigan farming community provided me an opportunity to follow in the time-honored traditions of agriculture and working the land through generations of Cole family members. Like many high school clubs and organizations, the FFA gave me a framework for my educational learning and vocation in agriculture. I joined thousands of young men and women across the U.S. in one of the most important industries in our country. I thank Gov. Evers for appointing me to the Secretary of DNR and for his shared belief in science.
JMC: When I first met you at the young age 35, you were affectionately known as “the Tree Guy,” as you headed up Milwaukee’s Forestry Department. You have worn many hats since, including work for the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, the Department of Public Works and other related offices. How did your education prepare you for these high-profile jobs?
PC: First and foremost, I’m a proud graduate of University of Missouri School of Forestry, Fisheries and Wildlife where I obtained my Bachelor’s in Forest Management. I began my career serving as Resource Forester with the Missouri Department of Conservation before moving to the great City of Milwaukee,
where I became City Forester and subsequently created the City of Milwaukee’s Environmental Services Division. These experiences prepared me to lead as the Deputy Commissioner of Public Works. I helped implement initiatives, including modern storm water relief, green infrastructure and complete streets,
garbage diversion, recycling incentives, a food waste program, and new urbanism strategies. Advocacy and the environmental ethics instilled in me continue to carry through to my work today.
JMC: In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on Wisconsin, what do you envision the DNR’s role is going forward, especially given our country’s dramatic shift as a result of the 2020 presidential election?
PC: Certainly COVID-19 has created challenges in the govt and private sectors. Under the leadership of Gov. Tony Evers, we continue to navigate successfully a continuation of the DNR’s work. Currently – and I expect soon – our work will continue to resemble a mix of working remotely and field operations that can be performed virtually in order to protect our customers and our employees. We also look to our sister agencies around the country to emulate best practices that allow DNR employees to accomplish the work at hand. COVID-19 also provided challenges and opportunities for Wisconsinites who wanted to enjoy the
outdoors. The DNR continues to pivot to allow folks to enjoy our 15 state forests, 49 state parks, and 84,000 miles of rivers and streams. These outdoor venues provide the requisite social distancing necessary to protect the health of our visitors, provide us a way to recreate safely, and socialize with family, clear our heads, provide mental and physical wellness being outdoors in nature. Since COVID-19 began impacting people’s lives in mid-March, visits to Wisconsin State Parks through October have totaled more than 20 million, there were over 620,000 boats registered and there were more than 472,000 camping reservations reached. Our famed nine-day gun deer season also saw dramatic increases including year-to-date sales for all deer licenses up 3.5% from the same time last
year and female hunters were the largest growing demographic in 2020, with the number of female hunters reaching more than 92,000, up 12% from last year.
JMC: Wisconsin is bountiful in regards to its water, hunting and fishing opportunities, outdoor recreation, and the tourism dollars generated for the state and related businesses. What do see as the most pressing concerns facing the DNR and the current administration under Gov. Evers?
PC: Certainly, getting people into the outdoors to enjoy these natural landscapes in a safe manner is important to both myself and the governor. Many communities around the state rely on outdoor recreationists and sportsmen/women visiting their communities. We uniquely understand the connection between the environment, outdoor recreation, and the Wisconsin economy. Outdoor recreation supplied an estimated $7.8 billion of economic development statewide. As communities rebound from economic challenges due to COVID- 19, the DNR stands ready with all communities across the state to assist in delivering on our promise of providing safe and reliable outdoor recreational
JMC: What is something people would be most surprised to know about you? Quirks? Interests? Hobbies?
PC: I grew up an AM Radio kid and enjoy listening to everything from Motown, Jackson Five, the Carpenters and John Denver.
JMC: If Secy. Cole were to order a beverage from across my bar, what would I be serving you?
PC: A traditional Wisconsin Old Fashioned.
JMC: Last question. When are we going fishing?!
PC: As soon as it is safe to be around people outside of our household.
Jonathan D. Maye-Cates studied journalism at UW-Milwaukee and was an editor of the original Black student newspaper, Invictus, on campus. In 1979, Jonathan was hired as the Los Angeles Times/Washington Bureau’s first paid Black intern. He later worked as a reporter for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. Jonathan now works as a bartender at the Charmant Hotel and serves as a commissioner on the La Crosse Human Rights Commission. He lives in La Crosse with his wife Laurie Ann Cafe.
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