Trempealeau Wetlands (copy) (copy)

The Knowles-Nelson stewardship program, which allows the state to acquire land and easements, develop recreational facilities and restore wildlife habitats, has been reauthorized twice since its creation.

Public-private partnership is a political science term that might lull you to sleep. Please, don’t nod off just yet, because here is a tale of a 30-year-old public-private partnership that has helped save the scenic and natural bounty of our state.

The partnership is between the state of Wisconsin and non-profit conservation organizations (NCOs). Under the Stewardship Fund, the largest conservation effort in state history, conservation organizations get matching grants to protect lands for their biological, natural, wildlife and scenic values.

While the largest part of stewardship has funded land acquisition by the DNR and local governments, an important element of the program is matching grants to NCOs, especially land trusts. The best known land trust is the Nature Conservancy, which operates not just in Wisconsin, but internationally. However, there are also dozens of excellent local and regional land trusts in the Badger State. These groups receive contributions from the public and often use those funds to match grants from the state’s Stewardship Fund. By combining the public’s charitable contributions with state grants, our tax money goes twice as far to protect our state’s natural heritage and beauty. In addition, land trusts enlist a legion of volunteers to restore natural areas, build trails and provide nature education.

I included the NCO grant program in the Stewardship Fund legislation that I proposed 30 years ago. However, involving land trusts in the Stewardship Fund was not my idea. In fact, just the opposite. I resisted initial requests for an NCO component in the stewardship program because I was concerned about diverting public tax dollars to private groups. After much persuasion, I was convinced that with appropriate safeguards, the program had merit. I’m sure glad I changed my mind, because the partnership with land trusts has been a smashing success.

The partnership between the Stewardship Program and land trusts — 815 grants so far — has touched virtually every corner of our state, from the northwoods to Door County to the prairies of southern Wisconsin. Here are just a few examples.

Up north, the Wild Rivers Legacy Forest encompasses 101 square miles, including 48 lakes and ponds and over 70 miles of rivers and streams. The Catherine Wolter Wilderness Area in Vilas County protects some of the most pristine lakes in our state, providing wildlife habitat for a host of species including loons, osprey, otters, fishers, bears and wolves. Nearby protected lands safeguard 400-year-old white pines.

Door County is both a natural wonder and a prime tourist locale, leading to an inevitable challenge to protect environmentally important areas in the face of development pressures. Here again, the NCO-Stewardship partnership has been essential. Protected areas include the Mink River Estuary, one of the few remaining high-quality Great Lakes estuaries and a key bird migration site, and Kangaroo Lake, home to an endangered dragonfly found few other places.

Prairies once covered much of southern Wisconsin, but most have been lost. Land trusts protect the 50,000-acre Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Area, one of the largest grasslands left.

Often, land trusts go beyond natural area preservation. Two efforts by Groundswell Conservancy, an outstanding organization that has protected many areas in rapidly developing south-central Wisconsin, illustrate this. They purchased land next to Lake View Elementary School to provide nature educational opportunities for students, 80% of whom are low-income. In another project, Groundswell protected 10 acres of farmland used by Hmong farmers to grow vegetables for their families and farmers markets.

It’s vital to help land trusts continue their critical work, both through our charitable contributions and by supporting reauthorization of the state Stewardship Fund.

Spencer Black served for 26 years in the state Legislature. He was chair of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee and the Assembly Democratic leader. Since leaving the Legislature, Black has been vice president for conservation for the national Sierra Club and adjunct professor of planning at UW-Madison.

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