The argument for suspending the state’s land preservation program goes like this:
• The state is borrowing too much money.
This is true.
• The state Department of Natural Resources already owns 1.5 million acres, which is more than 4 percent of Wisconsin’s land.
This also is true. In fact, when you add up all public nature areas, they equal one-sixth of the state.
So Gov. Scott Walker wants to suspend the state’s land conservation effort, called the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.
That would be a mistake. Here’s why:
• Land buying isn’t to blame for the state’s borrowing binge. The real culprit is soaring debt for roads.
Many lawmakers, though not enough, objected two years ago when Gov. Walker borrowed $1 billion for transportation projects, rather than raising the gas tax — a user fee that hasn’t increased in a decade.
Now the governor wants to double down on this bad fiscal policy. He just proposed borrowing $1.3 billion in the next state budget for roads — a 30 percent hike the conservative Legislature should reject.
In his likely bid for the Republican nomination for president, the governor fears being faulted for raising taxes. But increasing the gas tax a couple pennies per gallon to keep up with inflation represents a fair charge on drivers who use the roads. It’s not unlike the governor’s plan to hike fees on state park stickers and camping.
• Most publicly owned nature areas are in northern Wisconsin. The stewardship program helps protect green space in rapidly developing areas, such as south-central and southeastern Wisconsin. Moreover, a lot of the land strategically purchased with stewardship dollars helps protect our lakes and streams from pollution that washes off hard urban surfaces, construction sites and farms when it rains.
• Stewardship money leverages private and federal dollars to help protect pristine wilderness for hunting, fishing, hiking and other recreation. Virtually all stewardship land is open to the public, and many forests host timber operations that feed the paper industry.
• The Legislature already reduced borrowing for land from $37.5 million in 2011 to $32 million last year. That’s less than 5 percent of the borrowing Walker is seeking for roads. And unlike roads, which wear out, nature areas can last forever.
Critics warn that debt payments for the stewardship program, which began 25 years ago, will reach $90 million this year. But the only reason the figure is so high is because previous state leaders pushed higher debt payments into the future to deal with a past budget shortfall.
Chronic budget deficits under former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle now continue under Walker, who wants to halt land purchases for the next 13 years.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and others are right to resist such a short-sighted move. Assembly Republicans credit stewardship for protecting forests and waterways that attract tourists, and tourism supports roughly 185,000 jobs.
Stewardship should be maintained and celebrated for future generations.