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Bill Berry: Common sense out the window on tourism, working forests

Bill Berry: Common sense out the window on tourism, working forests

Maybe it was an illusion, but it used to seem like Wisconsin folks had decent common sense.

Now that we’ve elected Scott Walker governor not once, not twice, but three times, you have to wonder. His slash-and-burn budgets are short on logic. Take the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, the state’s premier land-acquisition fund that has proven economic value to the state. So named for former governors with great conservation credentials, Warren Knowles, a Republican, and Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat, the fund has long enjoyed bipartisan support in a state that prided itself on common-sense conservation and preservation of valuable lands.

Walker has proposed freezing — can you say “killing”? — the fund for 13 years to pay down current bonds. This at the same time he proposes $1.5 billion in bonding for transportation. Common sense, anyone?

Stewardship acquisitions support Wisconsin’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry. They provide public access to open spaces for hunting, fishing, hiking and other activities at a time when our population is growing and access to recreational lands is dwindling. As important, Stewardship funds are increasingly used to keep large tracts of forested land in northern Wisconsin intact and working.

Nationwide, fragmentation is one of the major threats to working forest lands. Fragmentation accelerated in the north when major forest owners like Consolidated Papers were sold to out-of-state interests and their lands divested.

But Stewardship has preserved large tracts of working forests. One recent example is a conservation easement on the Brule St. Croix Legacy Forest, funded in part with Stewardship funds in 2012. Part of the deal is pending approval by the Natural Resources Board this week. If it happens, the state and other partners, including the U.S. Forest Service, will have spent $16.9 million on a conservation easement for 67,347 acres of former paper company land now owned by Lyme Timber Co. of Hanover, N.H. Lyme Timber continues to own the property and manage timber production, but the easement prohibits subdividing for recreational or commercial purposes and protects logging and public access.

Seems like good common sense, right? DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp thought so in 2012, when she described the deal as a "win-win for everybody." The forest lies in the headwaters of the Bois Brule and St. Croix rivers, and thus straddles the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds.

The largest Stewardship purchase before Brule St. Croix was in 2006, when the state was involved in a conservation easement and related transactions with International Paper Co. and other parties involving 64,634 acres in Florence, Forest and Marinette counties. Again, it's a working forest arrangement.

Let’s see, natural resources protected, land kept in private hands, working forests and revenues they generate preserved, multiple public uses provided. Sounds more sensible than chopping up the land, as has happened in Wisconsin and across the country.

By killing Stewardship, Walker has again let ideology trump common sense. Shortsighted groups like the Wisconsin Farm Bureau have been prodding him to do this for years, ignoring the importance of these open spaces to preserving rural character.

Walker slashed Stewardship in the last budget, one in which he simultaneously but unsuccessfully called for lifting the 60,000-acre limit on foreign ownership of Wisconsin farmland. Let’s see, Chinese interests holding huge chunks of Wisconsin land versus preserving multiple public benefits like those from the Stewardship Fund. Doesn’t sound like common sense, does it?

Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times.

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