State land conservation program cut by $12.5 million, 10K acres ordered to be sold

MADISON — Despite being a highly popular program and offering public access to a half million acres of public land around Wisconsin, the state Joint Committee on Finance (JFC) voted on party lines today to deliver a $12.5 million funding cut to the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund.

“This cut is a major blow to this critical land conservation program that preserves Wisconsin’s natural landscape for future generations,” says Amber Meyer Smith, director of programs and government relations at Clean Wisconsin, the state’s largest environmental organization. “It is a hallmark of public-private partnerships and supports some of Wisconsin’s most cherished industries: fishing, hunting, forestry and the $16.8 billion tourism industry.”

Two years ago, the JFC cut the program by $26 million, or 30 percent, while authorizing it through 2020. In addition to today’s funding cut, the committee also made restrictions on future land acquisitions and is requiring 10,000 acres of Stewardship land be sold.

“What will they sell? The 400 acres of Stewardship land at Devil’s Lake? Protected parts of the Ice Age Trail? It’s disheartening and frustrating that the Legislature put Stewardship back on the chopping block and now wants to sell off these precious resources to the highest bidder.”

In honor of the bipartisan spirit in which the Stewardship Fund was created in 1989, the program is named for former Wisconsin governors Warren Knowles, a Republican, and Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat. To date, it has protected more than 500,000 acres of Wisconsin land and water, including Wild Rivers Legacy Forest in northeast Wisconsin, additions to Milwaukee’s Hank Aaron State Trail and a portion of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway.

“This is a successful, popular program that 70 percent of Wisconsinites support,” says Smith. “Today’s action by the Joint Committee on Finance largely unravels this important program and leaves its future in peril.”