Rep. Al Ott (R-Forest Junction) has been a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly since 1986. That was also the year when he joined the first class of participants in the Wisconsin Rural Leadership Program.
His 3rd Assembly District is in Calumet and Outagamie Counties. From 1973 to 1992 he served on the Calumet County Board and from 1984 to 1988 was a member of the Wis. Land Conservation Board.
From 1995 through 2007, Ott chaired the Assembly Agriculture Committee. Even though the names of committees change over the years, Ott’s legislative career has always included membership on committees with names that include words such as “Rural, Conservation or Environmental.”
“I was born and raised in agriculture,” Ott told Agri-View. As a former agri-business salesman, owner/operator of an independent agri-business, tenant dairy farmer and cash crop farmer, his words carry real meaning.
As Ott sees it, “there’s never been a more exciting time for agriculture.”
He calls his role as the current chair of the Natural Resources and Sporting Heritage Committee, “a natural fit. I’ve been a sportsman all my life. I love the outdoors, as well as hunting and fishing.” He’s especially proud of been able to help to share his enjoyment of the out-of-doors with his grandchildren.
“It’s a fun committee and it serves a community I like,” the lawmaker said. “The issues are complex, but Department of Natural Resources (DNR)Secretary Cathy Stepp and the governor are really serious on some of the issues the people felt weren’t being handled right.”
While continuing to serve as a member of the Assembly Agriculture Committee, Ott also serves on the committees that deal with consumer protection, tourism and transportation.
“Secretary Stepp is doing an excellent job with energy and enthusiasm. I’ve always had a lot of respect for the DNR,” Ott said. “The issues they handle touch humans and their charge is to have a more challenging interplay with the public on regulatory issues that affect the environment and, at the same time, people.”
Asked to comment on grey wolves being removed from the Endangered Species List, Ott noted “wolves are not as endangered as they were at one period of time. I’m comfortable on how the department handled it – there was constant discussion and it will continue to be monitored as we go forward.”
Ott views turkey hunting as “an excellent sporting activity. Whoever had the foresight to do turkey introduction and establish a hunting season did a really good thing. Hunting turkeys gives hunters a great excuse to be outdoors,” he said.
“But learning how to call that bird is a bit more challenging,” he acknowledged.
“Management of state lands is always an issue,” he continued. “When the DNR buys land it provides an opportunity for private individuals who do not have the means or desire to buy their own recreational land,” Ott said.
What’s too much land for the DNR to own?
That’s not an easy question for anyone to answer, but Ott pointed out “the population always seems to be growing. The trick is to maintain a balance of what is available to the public and what land might be better to leave as it is.
In other places where more management is needed, a lot will depend on the revenue available to spend on management.
The more sensitive lands are significant places and deserve higher management priorities.”
Ott said he has supported the Stewardship Fund “from the beginning, but in tough times we have to scale back a bit. It will be debated seriously in the budget bill. There’s a lot of good things connected with this fund, and we don’t want to lose it.”
“People can live in a small space as long as there are other places available to rejuvenate your psyche – that means public lands being available. These add to the contentment of society and to the quality of life. If public lands were not available, private lands would have less respect,” Ott emphasized.
(According to state figures, an estimated 5,890,200 acres of land in the state fall under the category “Public Conservation Land Ownership in Wisconsin.” Of this number, 2,470,000 acres are owned by counties; 1,856,500 are owned by the federal government; 1,487,800 acres are owned by the DNR and the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands owns 75,900 acres. The total number of land acres in the state is 34,758,500.)
One of the “most touchy areas” for both Ott’s committee and for the DNR is shoreland zoning. “We have private owners of shoreland and public owners. Regulatory issues involving shoreland zoning have to be dealt with carefully and respectfully,” Ott indicated.
As a rural legislator Ott is one who is “glad to see the DATCP updating and revising the nonpoint rule. The hard part is when money is not available for staff grants and matching cost-share grants. The problem doesn’t go away,” he said.
Not all of the conservation efforts to eliminate nonpoint problems involve cost-share grants, Ott declared. “Many farmers voluntarily do their own conservation projects – projects for which they are not reimbursed,” he said.
Decision-making is part of every legislator’s job Ott has developed his own model of just how he arrives at decisions.
“First of all, I listen. Next, you have to be willing to look at the tough issues and then be prepared to use one’s best judgment. As a legislator, you are charged with a perspective that means you have to look at all sides of an issue. You also have to recognize that what you do affects everyone. Sometimes it is a struggle,” this veteran lawmaker admits.
“But I fell blessed to be part of the Wisconsin Legislature and to have served on and chaired committees that are important to agriculture. I consider it a privilege to be chair of the Natural Resources and Sporting Heritage Committee,” Ott said.
Other members of this committee include Reps. Joel Kleefisch (R-Oconomowoc), Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam, Garey Bies (R-Sister Bay), Mary Williams (R-Medford), Jeffrey Mursau (R-Crivitz), Lee Nerison (R-Westby), Warren Petryk (R-Eleva), Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna), Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander), Nick Milroy (D-South Range), Chris Danou (D-Trempealeau), Fred Clark (D-Sauk City), Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie), Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) and Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton).
In case anyone is confused, there is another Ott in the State Assembly – however while Jim Ott (R-Mequon) and Al Ott share the same last name, they are not related.
Finally, there’s another reason the Ott name keeps popping up. It’s because Al’s daughter, Courtney, was the 50th Alice in Dairyland.
Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted before the Joint Finance Committee took up the Stewardship Fund.