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Wisconsin will consider selling naming rights to state parks to help them operate without tax support as proposed under Gov. Scott Walker’s biennial budget, Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp told lawmakers Tuesday.

Stepp said partnerships and sponsorship agreements with the private sector would be discussed over the next two years.

The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee heard details of Walker’s two-year budget proposal, which would force state parks to subsist on revenue from fees, halt conservation land purchases for 13 years, strip authority from the DNR’s citizens policy-making board and cut 66 agency positions.

“So we could see (a) state park brought to you by ATC?” Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, asked Stepp, referring to American Transmission Co.

Stepp said no corporate sponsors have come forward and selling naming rights is just one of several ways the department could bring in money from new sources.

“Senator, that’s very premature,” Stepp said. “We’re not looking at that right now but we’ll be talking about that.”

Lewis Ledford, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors, said some states have sold naming rights to buildings, but he didn’t know of one that auctioned off the actual park name.

State parks in California, New York and Virginia have sought partnerships with businesses — including North Face, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Sony and others — that want to increase their visibility and branding in parks but haven’t been able to become self-sustaining, the National Council of State Legislatures reported in 2012.

In Virginia, North Face’s logo was added to trailhead signs, NCSL researcher Douglas Shinkle wrote, but when tax dollars were withdrawn, states like California and Arizona were forced to padlock some parks.

Bill Zager, president of Friends of Wisconsin State Parks, said later that the group is not opposed to having corporate sponsors but “is not in favor of naming rights of parks by corporations.”

Stepp also said the agency may ask the Legislature to lift a statutory limit on the number of camping sites that can have electrical hookups. Current law limits electrified sites to 30 percent of the total, and the parks lose campers because of it, Stepp said.

Taking board’s power

Stepp said turning the Natural Resources Board into an advisory council would streamline agency rule making and improve accountability without shutting out the public.

“There would be less bureaucratic red tape in the rule-making process,” Stepp said. “There are still lots of ways for the public to weigh in at public hearings.”

The DNR creates rules that interpret state laws on pollution controls, wildlife management and other matters.

Pressed by legislators to specify an instance when the board created a problem or prompted complaints, Stepp said home builders, real estate agents and sporting groups have expressed frustration with board decisions, and that it’s more appropriate for elected officials to have control of DNR rules, which have the force of law.

Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, questioned how transferring the board’s power to the department secretary would improve accountability, since Stepp and Natural Resources Board members are appointed by the governor.

“When is your election?” Olsen asked.

State law requires board approval to sell certain state lands or to prohibit hunting and trapping in a park. In 2012, the board held public hearings that revealed strong opposition to opening state parks to hunting and trapping under a new law. The board approved plans that left some park areas off limits to hunting and trapping.

Cuts to DNR staffing levels would come from the department’s science bureau, fisheries, forestry, education and other operations. Stepp said the budget would allow the agency to continue its work.

Stepp insisted that the agency is not abandoning science. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said. “Science is part of everything we do at the DNR.”

Park funds, land purchases

Walker’s budget proposes eliminating general tax revenue for 48 state parks positions and increasing entrance fees by $3 and camping fees by $2 to help fill some of the funding gap.

However, even under the governor’s higher revenue projections, the operations budget for state parks would decline by $1.1 million to $15.6 million next year.

Tax revenue makes up $4.7 million — nearly 28 percent of the current $16.7 million budget. Tax dollars have shriveled as a source of state parks support since 1995 when the Legislature eliminated a requirement that the park operations be funded equally by user fees and the general fund.

The state park system includes 46 state parks, 14 state trails, four recreational areas and two national scenic trails. Eight state forests are funded separately but included in the state park system.

The proposed freeze on conservation land purchases is necessary to reduce debt payments that are eating up too much of the agency’s general purpose revenue, Stepp said.

“Seventy percent of the GPR budget goes to the credit card,” Stepp said. “It’s just really not sustainable.”

Budgeted debt payments peak this year at more than $89.9 million, in part because the state put off principal payments during the depths of the recession, causing higher payments now.

Sen. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, suggested that the debt costs were offset by economic benefits to the tourism and forestry industry.

The state has borrowed money for its Nelson-Knowles Stewardship Program to buy about 627,000 acres from 1990 through mid-2014. Most of that land — 416,500 acres — has been purchased since 2000 at a cost of almost $485 million, which includes $402.5 million in stewardship dollars and $82.2 million from other sources such as federal grants.

Since 1990, the program has preserved wild land for parks, hunting and hiking, as well as timber operations that feed the state’s paper industry.

Walker’s state budget produces an overall decrease in borrowing — down to $1.6 billion from $2 billion — while increasing highway borrowing by 30 percent to $1.3 billion. A small part of that overall reduction would come from halting land purchases.

Walker wants to hold off on stewardship land acquisitions until the portion of debt payments paid by state taxes falls by about $20 million per year to $54.3 million annually, which the state Department of Administration estimates would be in 2028.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.