JUDGING by what we witnessed in Oneida County last week, the Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) spring fish and game hearings should be declared dead on arrival.

When 35 people show up for a hearing compared to the 110 to 150 that historically attended, and they make comment on just two topics out of dozens, it’s pretty clear that what occurred was not a true “public hearing.”

Several people contacted the scribbler after the hearing to vent their disapproval of the current process, which is simply a vote based on limited information supplied by the department.

The story wasn’t much different in Vilas County, where about 40 sat through one of the quickest hearings in history and heard very little interaction.

The writing on this evolution has been on the wall ever since they went to an electronic voting ballot instead of a show of hands, allowing people to vote and leave with no public interaction.

Over the last several years the hearing attendance has dwindled and the questions and comments from attendees has gone to virtually zero.

There was a time not too long ago that the spring hearings were vibrant and filled with life, including debate on multiple topics in an atmosphere where sportsmen and -women shared from the heart their opinions, reasoning and experiences.

You could actually learn something at the spring hearings in the good old days. Not today. Now they just read the question and a little background on the proposal, and vote on a sheet of paper that offers numbers and some yes/no boxes.

Most of the time, there is no more information or background given than what’s on the brief summary in the questionnaire, so why have a hearing at all? 

This was the first year that the department allowed on-line voting for 72 hours after the hearings began in all 72 counties. And the result of that was pretty clear, as hundreds here and probably thousands statewide decided to stay home.

Unless the DNR is going to change the entire format and return to a hand count where a personal appearance is mandatory, they will never revive the spring hearings. There’s no other way to bring them back.

It makes no sense to continue on the current path. Holding a hearing that’s not a hearing is a waste of time and money. Just put it all online and let people vote, including the election for Conservation Congress delegates and any local resolutions that are submitted for a vote.

So let’s say the DNR and the Natural Resources Board agree that the hearings are unnecessary. What then?

Maybe the department can capitalize on today’s popularity with the online experience by allowing comments on proposed rule changes and advisory questions prior to the 72-hour voting window.

There’s a good chance those comments would include some of the opinions, experiences and reasoning that the hearings are missing today, so that we could revive some of the public interaction that used to take place prior to voting.

I would have loved to view comments from Wolf River and Lake Winnebago anglers prior to the vote on going to a three-walleye daily bag limit on the entire system, which was probably the most controversial rule change this year.

That system would also give state biologists and other experts a chance to weigh in on topics so that the voting public can learn more points of view prior to casting their own vote.

My suggestion would be that the comment length be limited to a couple hundred words or so, which requires people to get to the point instead of rambling. I think a higher number of shorter commentaries would be beneficial for the diversity the average reader might gain.

In all honesty, I’d rather return to the days of hand counting and personal appearances at “real” hearings. But times have changed and we need the support and input of the younger generation to continue the state’s conservation legacy.

So why not an improved online experience where we get both public comment prior to voting and the convenience of voting from our own homes?

The technology for this online feedback already exists within the DNR’s system, proven by the fact that it is part of the County Deer Advisory Council (CDAC) process for setting antlerless deer quotas and gathering public input on the proposed tag (authorization) numbers, season structure, deer herd status, etc.

That process gives the public a real voice in deer management, recording feedback in great detail prior to the final decisions on quotas in each county. They even send out an email that prompts deer hunters to comment and advises them on the deadline.

I envision a three-week period prior to the hearings where the public weighs in on proposed rule changes and advisory questions in a format that anyone can read and learn from if they so choose.

Maybe the average person won’t read dozens of comments on every question, but they might be curious about what others are saying on the questions that are dearest to them. In any event, it’s highly likely we’ll get more interaction than what the spring hearings are providing today.

The challenge for the DNR is to find a way to improve the informational sharing that occurs between outdoor enthusiasts prior to the voting, because informed voters are the best voters.

Everyone who wants to can vote on any of the spring hearing questions, but most people don’t partake in all the sports and seasons involving varied species of fish and game. Most don’t trap, for example, but they are asked in most years to vote on trapping questions.

Sportsmen and -women need somewhere to turn for information on each proposed rule change and advisory question, and not just the paragraph or two provided by the department. 

An online forum could provide diverse feedback that fulfills that need.