Land Stewardship Threatened

In its fall publication Landings:  Journal of the Door County Land Trust, Laurel Hauser wrote in an article titled “It’s a Wonderful Stewardship Fund” that much of the land trust’s conservation work could not be done without the existence of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.

The piece was meant as a celebration of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, which in its 25 years of existence has added more than 560,000 acres of land for public use throughout the state. The article also pointed out that Door County is second only to Dane County for the amount of stewardship program funds that have been used to buy land  – $18.2 million here in Door County, $19.7 million in Dane County; the next closest is Washington County, with $10.1 million.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources uses the stewardship program to buy land for preservation and recreation, but the program also awards grants to local and county governments and nonprofit conservation organizations such as Door County Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy and The Ridges Sanctuary to pay for land purchases, up to 50 percent of the appraised value.

In her article, Hauser quoted Door County Land Trust Executive Director Dan Burke, who said everyone who loves the outdoors should be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the stewardship program because it “is the single most valuable tool land trusts have for preserving land in Wisconsin today.”

Little did anyone know that just a few months later, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program would be in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget crosshairs. Walker’s budget plan would freeze land purchases for stewardship purposes until debt falls to $1 or less for every $8 of property the state owns, which is estimated to be in 2028.

The Legislature will surely weigh in on the issue, but what happens if Walker’s proposal survives intact?

“While it may not stop land conservation cold, it’s going to have a profound and deep effect. It’s for sure going to greatly slow down the pace of conservation,” said Burke.

And conservation groups would have to readjust to a new fundraising paradigm.

“The stewardship fund really, truly has ushered in our generation’s view of land conservation,” Burke said. “There have certainly been some momentous periods of conservation in Wisconsin history, but the last 25 years has really ushered in a new era of land conservation, and the stewardship fund has probably been the most important factor in that new wave of land conservation here in Door County and Wisconsin. Most of the places we think of when we think of public nature preserves and public open spaces, many of them been touched by the stewardship fund or have been created and established thanks to the stewardship fund. Many people may not realize the profound effect it has had on Door County. Every single purchase that the Door County Land Trust has done has involved in some amount state stewardship grant funds. A majority of them would not have happened with the fund.”

Burke said there is certainly a philosophical argument of when is enough enough?

“When have we protected enough of our scenic views and wildlife habitats for the public? When is that job done?” he said. “It’s interesting that wherever you put that date and you look at what’s come after that, it’s pretty astounding. If in 2007 when there was the last debate whether we should renew the stewardship fund, and if at that time they had decided not to, the Grand View Overlook and Scenic Park would not be here. The Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Preserve wouldn’t be here. Three Springs wouldn’t be here. I could go on and on.”

Conservation groups around the state are hoping the various groups that will be affected by the governor’s plan will raise their objections with their legislators.

“This is a program that has had a lot of success and impacted a lot of communities. I don’t really think that it falls along political lines. It really is not a Democratic or Republican issue,” Burke said. “Creating public access and more hunting and fishing land, protecting our best wildlife habitat, it’s a community value and not a political value. I’ve been hearing that. I hope that the support is out there in a wide spectrum of political thought about the value that this does bring. I argue it is as much an economic engine as it is a conservation engine, especially here in Door County, where tourism is the foundation of our economy. Even if it was economically motivated, it’s probably not wise to totally eliminate a program that has been such a big economic driver in the state. The residents and visitors to Door County, we need your voice because our county has been greatly enhanced and impacted by the stewardship fund, maybe more than any other place in the state. So we need your voice.”