Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

Preserving Land Preservation Program

by Neal Kedzie - State Senator

July 07, 2011

The Wisconsin Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program is an environmental success story which I have supported throughout my tenure in the Legislature.

The program allows the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to purchase tracts of land and keep them preserved for generations to come. Some of Wisconsin’s “best kept secrets” for outdoor enthusiasts may be found on Stewardship land.

In the 2011-13 state budget, which will soon become law, the program is authorized through 2020 at a level of borrowing of $60 million per year, which is a reduction from the previous level of $86 million a year.

While some were quick to criticize the Legislature for authorizing less borrowing, the fact is the reduction was required in order to preserve the program and keep it viable and affordable for the taxpayers who pay for it. Over the years, the borrowing limit increased nearly three-fold, but with the current economic conditions, it was necessary and appropriate to bring it back to a more reasonable level.

The Legislature also restored much-needed oversight and accountability to the Stewardship program. In years past, oversight was virtually eliminated by the previous Administration, making it more difficult for lawmakers to determine if money spent was being used appropriately.

In fact, at one point, the Legislature was completely cut out of the process, leaving taxpayers wondering who may be minding the land purchase store. In the new budget, legislative oversight is increased, as it should be, and any purchase more than $250,000 may be reviewed by the Joint Finance Committee; the Committee could also review projects less than $250,000 under certain circumstances. The previous threshold for review by the Legislature was $750,000.

Another important issue with the Stewardship program is information regarding the location and access to such properties. In 2009, the previous Legislature removed a requirement for the DNR to create a Stewardship land directory which would have provided information of lands open to the public. As to why that change was made was a mystery, as was information regarding the location of Stewardship property. Fortunately, new legislation has been introduced and passed by the State Assembly to reinstate this requirement. I am pleased to be the Senate author of this bill and believe more information will better serve both the taxpayers and the program itself.

I believe in the Stewardship program and the value it provides for protecting and preserving Wisconsin’s most precious natural resources. Likewise, I believe Wisconsin taxpayers recognize such value and have shown their commitment to the program since its inception. But I also believe a public perception exists that the Stewardship program maintains a “look, but don’t touch” policy in regards to the public’s ability to access and utilize Stewardship land. That perception may change as these new measures are enacted into law, and I hope it does.

Taxpayers have funded purchases for hundreds of thousands of acres of land over the last 20 years, and with the exception of truly sensitive areas, they should be allowed to access and enjoy those lands to their fullest potential. Further, the state must be more active in educating the public of where those lands are, how they may be accessed, and which outdoor opportunities are available to them. The Stewardship program will continue to be an environmental success story for the next decade to come and these new reforms will certainly lend to that success.