Lawmakers Weigh Proposed Changes To Stewardship Program

Walker Budget Would Freeze Land Buys, Conservation Easements

Chuck Quirmbach/WPR

As the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee wraps up its hearings on the proposed state budget with a session in Reedsburg Thursday, one of many major decisions it faces is whether to approve a plan that would freeze the stewardship land acquisition program.

Over the last 25 years, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program has protected more than a half-million acres of land through purchases and conservation easements. While big projects in the woods of northern Wisconsin have gotten most of the attention, the program has also made many smaller purchases in or near urban areas.

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In the Racine County Village of Mount Pleasant, Bill Sasse — the village’s engineering director — said that thanks to the Stewardship program, along with other state, federal and local money, a five-mile restoration project along the small Pike River is nearly complete. He said the project was an attempt to improve water quality, protect wildlife and increase public access with a riverside recreational trail. He also said risk of flooding has been reduced.

“The project has taken over 120 homes out of floodplain restrictions. We’ve shrunk the floodplain by this work, which means they don’t have to pay flood insurance, which can be very expensive for some of the homeowners,” said Sasse.

With the city of Racine just to its east, and highways, landfills, farm fields and other potential sources of pollutants nearby, the Pike River is still a challenged waterway. But Sierra Club member Melissa Warner said it’s been a good place for stewardship protection.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said he’d like to freeze only large land purchases. Shawn Johnson/WPR

Joint Finance Committee Co-Chair John Nygren has said . Courtesy of WPT

“Sometimes people think stewardship money just goes to buy a piece of property that kind of just sits there. And that’s appropriate in some places, but here in the middle of a developed area where people can’t connect to nature or the outdoors in any significant way on their lawn or in their apartment building, they can come here and relax and enjoy being outside,” said Warner.

Much of the Pike River is in the legislative district of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who says he differs with Gov. Scott Walker on the future of stewardship. The governor wants to freeze land buys and conservation easements until the debt payments for stewardship bonding substantially shrinks in relation to the protected landsomething Walker said could take 13 years to happen. Vos, however, said it may be better to just steer away from large land buys.

“My preference would be trying to focus the Stewardship program, as opposed to buying tens of thousands of acres of northern forestland all the time, I would like to use it to buy park space and open land and be able to have open spaces developed so the public can use them for hiking or for biking, things like that,” said Vos.

Others at the state Capitol have been promoting the idea of going ahead with conservation easements that allow sustainable logging on forestland, for example.

Rep. John Nygren, the Republican co-chair of the Finance Committee, said there’s a divide between northern and southern Wisconsin.

“(In) northern Wisconsin, sizable parts of counties are either federally, state or county-owned,” said Nygren. “And … in the more populated areas where they’re looking for green space. So it’s our job to weigh those out and come up with a proposal that everyone can support.”

The other Finance Committee co-chair, suburban Milwaukee Sen. Alberta Darling, said she loves the stewardship program but said there’s a limit to the amount of tax dollars that can be used toward the debt payments.