Stewardship fund debate hits home

State reauthorization proposal sparks concerns in Ozaukee, Washington counties where program has helped preserve thousands of acres, shape communities

THE BEAUTY OF nature has been retained in preserves around Ozaukee County that are open for public use in perpetuity, including the Sauk Creek Nature Preserve in the Town of Port Washington. The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program has been integral in funding the acquisition of both preserves. Press file photo
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

If you ask Tom Stolp, executive director of the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust, what the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program has meant to the area, the answer is simple.

“I really don’t even know what Ozaukee and Washington counties would look like if we didn’t have this 30-year-old program,” Stolp said.

“It would be a different community altogether.”

But Stolp is concerned about the future of the stewardship program, which is scheduled to sunset in 2020.

Although it has traditionally been reauthorized for 10-year periods, Gov. Tony Evers, in his budget proposal, has proposed reauthorizing it for only two years. 

Stolp said that’s not long enough.

“We’re bringing together complex projects,” he said. “Even the most straightforward plan, we begin the conversation with the landowner many years in advance.”

He noted that the Land Trust’s most recent acquisition, the Kinnamon property in the Town of Saukville, began with conversations with the family 30 years ago.

  A 10-year reauthorization would provide the needed “predictability in planning,” he said.

The stewardship program, which is run through the Department of Natural Resources, has been integral in helping to preserve properties like Lions Den Gorge Nature Preserve in the Town of Grafton, the Forest Beach Migratory Preserve in Ozaukee County, and the Mequon Nature Preserve. 

It is expected to provide significant funding for a nature preserve in the proposed Cedar Vineyard project on Port Washington’s south side, Stolp said, and it has allowed the Land Trust to protect more than 7,000 acres in the two counties, including 32 nature preserves.

“In every one of these acquisitions, it has been a difference maker,’ he said, adding that the Land Trust continues to talk to property owners about potential projects that could be funded by the stewardship program “to add to the already grand jewels in the crown of our Lake Michigan communities.”

The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund is an invaluable resource, Stolp said, calling it the state’s “signature land and water protection program.”

But not everyone agrees that the program should be reauthorized for that long.

Sen. Duey Stroebel, a Republican from the Town of Saukville, said he supports the two-year extension, adding the Legislature needs to discuss the funding level.

However, he said, he has serious concerns about the program and its cost, both in terms of money spent and land taken off the tax rolls.

While the DNR has purchased or protected 1.8 million acres of land across the state, he said the debt the program has accumulated is $795 million.

“When you’ve got a program that’s costing taxpayers a half-million dollars in interest alone every week on the debt that’s accumulating, that’s significant,” Stroebel said. “I think we need to look at that very seriously.”

The stewardship program has to be weighed against other state needs, such as roads and Medicaid and schools, he said.

“There are a lot of needs in the state and it’s all about priorities,” Stroebel said, adding he doesn’t know whether the original intent was “for it to go on in perpetuity.”

The program, he said, is in need of reform. 

The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund — named for Wisconsin governors Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat, and Warren Knowles, a Republican, who championed the environment — has done more than just protect the state’s resources, said Mike Carlson, executive director of Gathering Waters. 

It has also been a driver of tourism, outdoor recreation and economic development, he said.

A recent study by the Outdoor Industry Association shows that out-of-state visitors spend $5.2 billion on outdoor recreation in the state, generates $17.9 billion in annual consumer spending and supports 168,000 jobs statewide.

“We provide amazing wilderness opportunities close to urban areas,” Stolp said. “It’s about creating these special places for the community to enjoy.”

“These are investments in local quality of life,” Carlson said. “That’s continuing to be a huge area of importance to the State of Wisconsin.”

Carlson noted that the stewardship program aids both local government and nonprofits with grants that have to be matched by other contributions, ensuring public buy-in to the program.

Evers has also proposed creating a taskforce to study options for the program, but Carlson said no one has defined the membership of the group or its mission.

In the meantime, he said, “There is very real potential we would lose conservation opportunities.”

That’s especially true, he said, since no one has said how much money would be available for the stewardship program during the two year reauthorization.

“Nobody knows how much funding is available,” Carlson said. “That just makes the problem worse.

“We’re always happy to sit down with the stakeholders and talk about potential changes and the importance of the program, but we’d like to do that with the predictability of having the program for a sustainable period of time.”

Stolp said he is encouraging people to contact the governor and Legislature to support the stewardship program.

“It’s a modest investment,” he said. “The book hasn’t been written on land and water programs and conservation in southeastern Wisconsin. We’re still writing it, and there are so many places that need protection.

“We want to keep doing this work.”

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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