Wisconsin conservation groups have heaped praise on Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ plans for restoring water quality protections, but two prominent environmental advocates said they were disappointed that Evers hasn’t proposed restoring the state’s program for preserving natural areas and improving outdoor recreation.
The state chapter of the Sierra Club and Wisconsin Conservation Voters both issued statements saying they wished Evers had included in his budget a proposal for a 10-year renewal of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, which is due to expire in 2020 after being reduced and revised over the last eight years by former Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican Legislature.
But another state conservation leader said history shows the governor’s plan to call on a “blue ribbon task force” to study options for the stewardship fund is the best bet for re-establishing a robust and stable program two years from now.
“In the past, a blue ribbon task force was always set up before the stewardship fund was going to expire,” said George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. “That is the way a consensus is reached between stakeholders, the Legislature and the administrative branch on a solid footing that everyone can agree on for the next 10 years.”
Some of the conflicts around how the program should operate were apparent Thursday in a state Senate sporting heritage committee confirmation hearing for Preston Cole, Evers’ designee as Department of Natural Resources secretary.
Sen. Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, asked Cole if the state was reaching a tipping point with too much land that is off the tax rolls and too much of the state budget devoted to repaying 20-year low-interest loans that finance the stewardship program.
Another committee member, Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Somers, said the state needed to be ready to acquire property when private owners were ready to sell. Lands with high recreation value might become available once in a generation, and if the state wasn’t able to act, the property could be lost forever to development, Wirch said.
The committee should push for more investments in outdoor recreation to help bring more tourism dollars into the state, he said.
“Tourists don’t come here to see our suburbs,” Wirch said.
Cole added that public land was important to state efforts to promote hunting. Many people — particularly those who live in cities — don’t own acreage that can be used for hunting and don’t have friends or relatives with such land, Cole said.
About 17 percent of the state — 5.9 million acres — is public conservation land. Close to three-quarters is federal or county parks and forests.
The program began in 1989 with about $25 million a year with a goal of increasing opportunities for nature-based recreation.
The program was popular. Funding levels grew when it was reauthorized in 1999 and in 2007. The program’s spending authority stayed at about $60 million a year for most of the 2000s, but rose as high as $86 million.
Amid concerns about costs, the Republican-controlled Legislature and Walker in 2013 ordered DNR to sell 10,000 acres of the 1.5 million acres it owned. A variety of restrictions on new purchases were imposed during that period and by 2015 stewardship spending had been reduced to just over $33 million a year.
Cole said he expects Evers’ blue ribbon task force will give everyone a voice in determining what the future should look like.
Evers proposed extending the program’s life for two years without an increase in funding while options for a 10-year reauthorization are studied.
Not everyone was convinced that it was a good idea to continue at the current funding level.
“We appreciate his plan to bring diverse stakeholders together to determine the next phase of the program but are disappointed that his budget only allocates funding for two years at current levels,” said Wisconsin Conservation Voters executive director Kerry Schumann.
Bill Davis, director of the Sierra Club’s John Muir Chapter, said continued low funding levels concerned him because it can take many months to pull together important acquisitions that may be available for limited periods of time.
Stewardship money is available for state, local governments and nonprofit groups to buy property, expand public access, preserve natural features and develop recreational facilities.
Meyer, a former state DNR secretary, said the initial authorization and the 1999 reauthorization were preceded by blue-ribbon panels that worked out differences about the fund’s priorities.
Meyer attributed conflict and changes in funding levels since 2007 to former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s decision not to appoint a study panel before the program was reauthorized.
Walker took office in 2011, led efforts to restrict the fund, and he didn’t set up a blue-ribbon panel to make recommendations before the 2020 expiration, Meyer said.