PRESS EDITORIAL: While politicians dither, land trusts lead the way in conservation


Conservation issues went unaddressed in the national and Wisconsin political campaigns this fall, but the beat goes on at the ground level through an army of volunteers for land trusts.

They never rest in the short term, and they never lose sight of the long term. Their passion for the state’s land, water and soil was evident at the recent conservation celebration convened in Madison by Gathering Waters, the umbrella organization for the state’s land trusts. Jimmy VandenBrook, who won an award for working lands preservation, framed the theme of the event when he called for attention to the common good in the long term.

“I believe Wisconsin is sick of our current zero-sum approach to conservation and political discourse,” he said. “I see a new light shining on this land that is our responsibility to care for. I hope we have the wisdom to reach across uncomfortable spaces to engage everyone for the common good.”

The dedication to land and water protection has been on display for years in the work of the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust (OWLT).

OWLT has protected through purchase, collaboration and easements more than 6,800 acres. They are almost all open to the public for many uses, including hunting and fishing.

OWLT is one of 46 land trusts in Wisconsin. The trusts are supported by
25,000 members and have protected 538,000 acres in the state.

Its history started 26 years ago in Ozaukee County as a volunteer organization. Under president Ginny Bolger, it hired its first executive director, Steve Seyfert, a few years later and now has a fulltime staff of six protection experts.

At the national level, there are 1,363 land trusts, 4.6 million members and 56 million acres protected. In short, there is an army of land protectors out there doing good conservation work for the environment day after day.

Many of the protected acres are in the sponge areas along the Milwaukee River and its tributaries, which will mitigate flooding downstream. That effort has been helped by funds from the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District and the state Department of Natural Resources.

Besides providing habitat for wildlife, the conserved acres are also good for hunters and anglers because many of the protected properties have now been opened to the public.

Given the inattention of our political leaders to monumental challenges like the invasive species wreckage to the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence Seaway, the approaching Asian carp via the Chicago canal, the dead zone in Green Bay and algae takeovers of inland lakes caused by phosphorous loads, it is reassuring to know that leadership is on-going at the grassroots level.

The land trusts rely on the state’s Stewardship Fund, which was given birth in the 1960s under the bipartisan leadership of Republican Gov. Warren Knowles and Democratic Gov. Gaylord Nelson, to do their work.

It is up for 10-year reauthorization at $33.5 million per year, down from a high of $80 million at its peak. About half of the acquisition dollars have come from matching funds raised by land trust donors.

A permanent, stable source of funding needs must be found to pay off the Stewardship bonds. One possibility that makes sense is a small per-ton tax on sands extracted for the fracking industry.

VandenBrook led a broad-based two-year planning exercise in 2017 that offers a path forward for the state’s lands and waters.

It proposed measures that would cut phosphorous runoff from manure and fertilizers by 30% by 2035, ensure safe drinking water by cutting nitrate and pathogen sources and stem the loss of 22,000 acres of farmland per year. Why hasn’t it been embraced more fully?

Those kinds of support for conservation take political leadership, similar to the creation of the Stewardship fund under Knowles and Nelson.

The author’s blog on business, politics, health care and conservation can be found at He lives in rural West Bend.



Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

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


User login