Tuesday, January 31st, 2023
Tuesday, January 31st, 2023

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Stewardship cuts target of criticism

Correspondent

Madison The Legislature’s budget-writing committee refused on
May 5 to use Wisconsin’s Stewardship Fund for three land purchases
and then slashed the program’s bonding authority and ordered the
DNR to sell $40 million worth of state land.

A vote May 5 shot down use of the money for projects, which
included a $1.8 million partial reimbursement to The Nature
Conservancy for a 2,189-acre preserve in Vilas County near Presque
Isle called the Catherine Wolter Wilderness Area. The Joint Finance
Committee (JFC) also rejected a $610,000 plan to buy 118 acres in
Waukesha County and extend the Spring Book Creek Greenway Corridor,
and a $803,500 proposal to buy 207 acres to add to the Ice Age
Trail and the Chippewa Moraine State Recreation Area in Chippewa
County.

Then on May 8, the JFC cut $245 million from the land-purchase
program through 2010 by cutting 80 percent of the funds the next
two years and 50 percent of the funds in proceeding years.

The JFC also ordered the DNR to sell $40 million in state
property in the next two years about 26,000 acres at current
values.

The Stewardship Fund has set aside $60 million in bonds each
year to buy land for recreation, wildlife habitat, state parks,
trails, forests and other natural areas. The latest vote would make
that an average of $12 million in each of the next two years and
$30 million annually thereafter through 2010.

While critics are calling the decisions a tragedy for
conservation, JFC members say the budget crisis puts other programs
ahead of buying land.

Rep. Dan Meyer (R-Eagle River), a committee member, said the
state can’t afford to issue bonds when faced with a $3.2 billion
deficit.

“We’re paying about $25 million to pay off the bonding this year
and that figure would have gone up another $4 million next year if
the program stayed the same,” Meyer said. “There are more important
things to consider, such as programs for autistic children and
shared revenue for municipalities.”

Meyer, who helped draft the JFC’s motion, said it is time to
scale back the Stewardship program for a couple of years, “until
the state gets its house in order.”

“The DNR will buy up every piece of property it can get its
hands on,” Meyer said. “In Vilas County, we already have 44 percent
of the land in public ownership. Another 16 percent is lake surface
and 17 percent is wetlands. So over 70 percent of Vilas County is
already protected in one form or another.”

DNR secretary Scott Hassett’s executive assistant, Elizabeth
Kluesner, said the DNR isn’t a real estate firm and isn’t in the
business of selling land. That brought this comment from Meyer:
“They sure act like Century 21 when it comes to buying up
property.”

Meyer said the panel envisions the sale of isolated 40s and
other DNR properties that are not related to large holdings.

Called “shortsighted”

Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, said the decision by the
Republican-controlled JFC was shortsighted and would not help the
state fix its budget deficit.

“What it will do is derail environmental protection efforts that
are important to tourism and our quality of life,” Doyle said.

Critics are calling the decision a tragedy for conservation,
saying the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund has succeeded in helping
to protect more than 200,000 of the state’s most diverse and
pristine acres in 71 of the state’s 72 counties.

“Clearly, the members of the Joint Finance Committee have chosen
to ignore the immense value that Wisconsinites place on open space
and natural areas,” said Kathy Pielsticker, executive director of
the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters.

“Unfortunately, they have also demonstrated a complete
misunderstanding of how the program works financially,” she
said.

Diversion illegal

Leading up to the vote, the conservation community has touted
the fact that the Stewardship Fund, as a bonded program, has very
little impact on the state budget’s bottom line.

Leaders of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation said diversion of
money from the Stewardship Fund would be illegal.

“While the sale of conservation lands itself is bad policy, the
placing of sale proceeds into the Budget Stabilization Fund will
constitute an illegal diversion of federal funds and cost Wisconsin
millions of federal dollars for fish and wildlife purposes,” said
Jerry Knuth, president of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

He said a significant amount of state conservation land has been
bought under the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act
(Pittman-Robertson Fund), Federal Aid in Sports Fish Restoration
Act (Wallop-Breaux Fund) and from the state’s hunting and fishing
license segregated account.

If the proceeds of the sales of these lands are placed into the
general purpose revenue Budget Stabilization Fund, it will
constitute an illegal diversion of federal funds and, as it has in
other states, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be obligated
to obtain full reimbursement of the land sale proceeds from
Wisconsin and cut off current funding to the state from the
Pittman-Robertson and Wallop-Breaux funds, said George Meyer,
former DNR secretary and executive director of the Wisconsin
Wildlife Federation.

“Yes, we have a very serious budget deficit in Wisconsin, but
the way to balance it is not on the back of a highly popular bonded
program,” George Meyer said.

Meyer said slashing funding to the Stewardship program will not
make a material difference in the budget, but would make a drastic
difference in the quality of the lives of state residents and the
long-term viability of Wisconsin’s economy.

Bill Horvath, of the Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association, said
land isn’t getting any cheaper and with every missed opportunity,
the price of land grows higher.

“With rampant development along our lakeshores and in our
Northwoods, I’m afraid of what this reduction means to the places
that make Wisconsin Wisconsin,” Horvath said.

The league and others are optimistic that members of the
Assembly and Senate will repeal the JFC’s decision and will restore
full funding to the program in coming weeks.

Wisconsin faces a $3.2 billion deficit for the period through
June 30, 2005, because expected revenues do not match requested
spending. Doyle has long ruled out tax increases to cover the
shortfall.

Already protected

When the JFC first tabled the $1.8 million partial reimbursement
to The Nature Conservancy in December, Rep. John Gard (R-Peshtigo)
questioned the use of taxpayer money on land that is already
protected.

Gard, then JFC co-chairman before his election as Speaker of the
Assembly, said the Stewardship funds would be better spent on
buying natural areas that are unprotected.

The Nature Conservancy bought the area now known as the
Catherine Wolter Wilderness Area in 2000 for $2.6 million, nearly
$1 million less than its appraised value. The difference was a
donation from the Wolter family.

The nonprofit group is now applying for 50 percent
reimbursement, based on the appraised value of $3.6 million, in
exchange for a management plan the DNR helped author.

The plan is to preserve the property as a walk-in area for
hikers, hunters and anglers (release only). Prohibited uses would
include camping, picnicking, bicycling, horseback riding, trapping,
and motorized recreation.

Environmentalists consider the area worth protecting because of
its 36,000 feet of undeveloped shoreline on 15 wild lakes and
ponds. Rep. Dan Meyer held up approval of the application over
concerns about motorized-vehicle access to the property.

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