PRESS EDITORIAL: Love of nature preserves found in pandemic will endure

Some of survival expedients Americans adopted to get through the pandemic will likely be around long after the coronavirus been been subdued.

Zoom meetings to conduct business and connect far-flung family members and friends will surely be permanent features of daily life.

Curbside pickup of groceries, liquor, restaurant food and a lot more will be a standard service, not for the safety of it, but for its sensible convenience and efficiency.

And the reverance for preserved nature on public lands that was discovered as an escape during pandemic confinement will remain as a force that empowers and sustains conservation.

Many Americans unfamiliar with natural places sought them out for the lack of other places to go during lockdowns. In post-pandemic life, they will go back because of the wonders they found.

National parks were visited by more people in 2020 than ever before. The same is true of Wisconsin state parks, which had a record 21 million visits last year. Sales of state park vehicle stickers increased by nearly 50%.

Parks were packed in Ozaukee County too, none more than the Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve on the Lake Michigan shore in the Town of Grafton, which was overwhelmed by visitors—literally. Nearly 270,000 people went there in 2020, 50,000 more than in the previous year. On some days, vehicles overflowed the preserve parking lot, lined the half-mile long access road and spilled out onto Highway C; sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to direct traffic.

Visitor volume in Port Washington parks is not recorded, but based on observation it is safe to say that the city’s lakefront parks were never busier than in 2020. In all seasons, whatever the weather, the walkways of Rotary Park and Coal Dock Park were traveled by remarkable numbers of people seeking the balm of fresh air and exercise amid the ever-changing moods of Lake Michigan.

Appreciation for public lands peaked in the pandemic year, but Americans have long been ahead of their federal and state elected representatives in understanding the importance of protecting those precious places that embrace the glory of nature.

When the Trump administration executed the largest removal of lands from federal protection in the country’s history, including opening the Tongass forest in Alaska to industrial logging, the move was popular with the corporations that were enriched, but not with the public. Polls showed that Americans disapproved by wide margins.

In Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers have been trying for years to renege on funding the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program that protects land and water for nature conservancy and recreational use. Without it, the Lion’s Den preserve would not exist, nor would it be possible for the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs preserve to be established on nearby shoreland as is planned by the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust and Ozaukee County.

When not trying to stop paying for the program altogether, its foes in the Legislature have been working to starve it in increments by reducing funding in each budget cycle. Last year, the program barely survived with a one-year authorization at about half of what is considered the funding level necessary to carry on its work.

Now Gov. Tony Evers has proposed reauthorizing Knowles-Nelson for 10 years with $70 million a year in bonding. The long-term guarantee of funding is needed to enable the program to keep pace with the pressure of private development on environmentally significant sites.

Wisconsin is in a good position to carry out the governor’s proposal. The state got through the worst of the pandemic recession in better financial shape than was expected, and now it is due to receive $5.7 billion in federal stimulus funding.

What’s more, the annual revenue generated by the outdoor recreation economy, driven in significant part by access to lands protected by the Stewardship Fund, has grown to around $8 billion that is added each year to Wisconsin’s gross domestic product.

Most telling, the people of Wisconsin want the program to be given the funding it needs to carry on its work effectively. A 2020 survey by New Bridge Strategy and FM3 Research found that 93% of state residents, including more than half of conservative voters polled, want the Stewardship Program reauthorized for the next 10 years.

Wisconsinites have always seen the importance of protecting the state’s irreplaceable land and water resources and making them accessible to the public. Now that vision is clearer than ever, thanks to the pandemic.

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Ozaukee Press

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.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494
 

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