THE Department of Natural Resources (DNR) says that through a new online voting system, the public will have greater opportunities to weigh in on proposed fish and wildlife rules at the spring hearings in April.

There will be two new choices available. Those who attend can just grab a code and leave, because they can vote later online and still get included in the county-specific voting results. Those who can’t attend can sign in online without a code and still be included in statewide voting results.

“For security, and to ensure the integrity of the results, individuals will be required to sign in to use the online version, just as they do in person,” officials said. “We have security systems in place to identity any inappropriate use of the online system and we will continuously monitor the system for intentional misuse.”

Hurrah to the DNR and the Wisconsin Conservation Congress for finding a way to include more people in the annual hearings that shape rules that impact hunting, fishing, trapping and other outdoor recreation.

A lot of sportspeople who had conflicts with attending a Monday night hearing over the years had to wonder why their voice and vote couldn’t be counted, leaving thousands out of the process that shapes our regulations.

But this new online voting system isn’t a cure-all for what we’ve lost over the years. Mostly, it will not bring back the effective, worthwhile hearings of years past — when people actually testified and shared information prior to a counting of hands, yes or no. 

Since they went to computerized voting, which can be done in the lobby and turned in prior to the so-called hearing, there has been a considerable lack of testimony, debate and spirited comment.

In the good old days, we listened to what others had to say and quite often learned from their testimony and their experiences. It was truly a public hearing, worthy of that title. Not today.

It wasn’t a matter of just hearing someone’s opinion. What they shared that was so vital to the process was the reasoning behind their stance, and quite often it put things in a far different perspective. It was educational to say the least.

As the scribbler has written previously, the department should either bring back the true public hearing environment or scrap these expensive, worthless meetings in every county in favor of online voting.

There is nothing that occurs at today’s hearings, including votes on county delegates to the Conservation Congress or local resolutions, that can’t be handled just as well through an online portal and voting system.

For one thing, the DNR has an incredible database of names, addresses and customer ID numbers in its computer system. They could let people vote using that identification system, which would cover the vast majority of people who weigh in annually on the proposed rule changes and advisory questions.

Interested voters who aren’t part of the licensing system could still sign in and vote, and the totals could be tabulated in multiple ways if there’s a reason to separate hunters and anglers from non-license holders — even if for curiosity’s sake.

Personally, I don’t see that as a problem. We are talking mostly about hunting, fishing and trapping regulations, and it’s the licensed sportsmen and -wom­en who have the most to gain or lose here.

There are some general questions on the hearing survey every year that impact overall conservation, especially when it comes to advisory questions on mining, groundwater protection, aquatic invasive species or some other topic. So everybody should have access to the online voting system.

But in general, we don’t need anti-hunters or anti-trappers voting on our season frameworks, harvest regulations, bag limits, trap restrictions, etc. That is the only danger in opening this whole thing up to online voting — that opponents of our sports could gain an equal voice without having to face anyone at a hearing.

That’s another reason to use a DNR customer number or some other positive form of identification, so we can ensure that the vote totals have some accuracy and integrity.

Today’s spring hearing format fits right in with a modern society where most people hardly know, or talk to, their neighbors. It’s computerized but cold, efficient yet unproductive when it comes to hearing what others have to say.

Believe it or not, it was even nice to hear testimony given by people who were clearly on a different wave-length than the scribbler. Sometimes they offered a little extra insight that helped me shape a better opinion with better reasoning.

Maybe it’s old-fashioned to miss that one-on-one interaction with people at a hearing, especially when you can just tweet or post to make your opinions known. Maybe that’s the direction in which the world is headed.

I got a taste of a real hearing last fall when the Natural Resources Board wanted public input on whether it should close the grouse season early due to a mysterious crash in the adult population. It was both educational and entertaining.

It’s probably a pipe dream to imagine the DNR would reverse course and give us back a real public hearing format for the spring hearings. But if not, let’s call them meetings because they aren’t much of a hearing any more.

That’s the good and bad of the DNR’s recent announcement. More public input through online voting but no increased incentive to offer any testimony on the hearing questions.

I’d say this move is the first step toward a format where all the voting is done online, so we can use our fancy smartphones for yet another proj­ect.