Wisconsin has lost another great conservationist. Herbert Frederick “Herb” Behnke, age 88 of the Town of Richmond, passed away Sunday, December 8, in Shawano. In honor of his legacy, we would like to share this obituary, by Paul A. Smith of the Journal Sentinel:
Herb Behnke of Shawano, former chairman and longest serving member of the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board, has died. He was 88.
Behnke was born and raised on a Lena dairy farm, youngest of 10 children, and grew to become one of the state’s most respected conservation leaders.
Behnke was a strong advocate for an independent Department of Natural Resources as well as for use of the Knowles Nelson Stewardship Program to protect land from development.
In his vocation, Behnke left the farm to work at Cooperative Resources International (CRI), a Shawano-based animal breeding business, where he became vice president of marketing.
Gov. Warren Knowles in 1968 appointed Behnke to the newly formed Natural Resources Board. He served until 1972. He was appointed again by Gov. Tommy Thompson in 1989 and served until 2006. He chaired the board from 1993 to 1997.
Behnke became known for forthrightness, common sense and independence.
“I always believed conservation decisions should be made on what’s best for the resource, not a political party,” Behnke said.
A lifelong hunter and angler, Behnke in 1961 was appointed by Gov. Gaylord Nelson to the Wolf River Basin Regional Planning Commission.
Six years later Gov. Knowles named Behnke to the Wisconsin Conservation Commission, predecessor to the DNR board.
In 1995, Behnke strongly opposed a move by Gov. Thompson – who had appointed him to the NRB – to make the DNR secretary a cabinet position.
Behnke testified before the Joint Finance Committee that the governor’s proposal would be bad for conservation in Wisconsin.
Though he rubbed shoulders with chief executives and holders of high political office, Behnke never forgot his roots. He earned a reputation as a man of the people by demonstrating honesty, humor, humility and integrity for more than four decades.
He was inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame in 2009.
“I never really listened much to special interest groups,” Behnke said in his induction to the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame. “To me, it was the common men and women who loved to hunt and fish, and what they wanted.”
Behnke remained active in recent years in various conservation and civic causes, including serving on the board of the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin and several wildlife groups.
He and his wife Lenore also endowed a scholarship in the College of Natural Resources at UW-Stevens Point.
Behnke had suffered from pulmonary fibrosis in recent years, then was diagnosed with leukemia in September. He chose not to undergo chemotherapy for the leukemia.
Over the last three months, he received care at home from Lenore and a hospice nurse. Behnke had a bed placed in a room that provided views to his beloved Wolf River, just east of the house.
He enjoyed visits from many guests and frequent telephone conversations with friends and well-wishers.
“A positive part of this situation is I have no dietary restrictions,” Behnke told me in late September. “In fact, I might become a diabetic from all the sweets people are bringing.”
His strength declined over the last week, perhaps due to pneumonia, Lenore said. On Sunday he was taken to a hospital in Shawano where he died Sunday night.
Behnke is survived by his wife Lenore of Shawano and their son Crispen, daughter-in-law Kelly and two granddaughters, all of Rochester, Minn.
A memorial service is planned at 11 a.m. on Dec. 17 at St. James Lutheran Church in Shawano. Visitation will be at the church from 9 to 11 a..m.