Stewardship funding facing an uphill battle
Eau Claire, Wis. — In his address to the annual convention of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, Gov. Scott Walker spoke to the future of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund – as in cutting funding and selling some state land.
“My focus is that what we put into the Stewardship Fund is available to the public,” he said. “My objective is that there is access.”
Congress delegate Ralph Fritsch, of Oconto County, asked Walker to respond to recent attempts by the Legislature to reduce funding below the current level of $60 million a year. “We gave up $28 million last year and the budget now (according to the Legislature) proposes that $20 million would come out of the budget again,” Fritsch said.
Walker explained the limits of his discretion on the matter by saying that he can’t move the number higher than what the Legislature prescribes.
“I can veto an amount, or I can lower it, but I can’t increase it,” Walker said.
While the governor’s budget would hold Stewardship funding at the current $60 million level, the Legislature has different ideas, based on a recent proposal by Rep. Daniel LeMahieu, R-Cascade. His amendment would cut funding for the program by $63.5 million through 2020. It reduces funding to $47.5 million in 2013-14 and $54.5 million in 2014-15. After that, authorization would level off with $50 million dedicated to the program in each year through 2020.
In a press release dated May 15, LeMahieu outlined key details of the motion that passed the Joint Finance Committee by a 12-4 vote.
• $20 million for DNR land buys, two-thirds for easements, and the rest for fee title buys.
• $12 million for nonprofit conservation groups.
• $2.5 million in recreational boating aids to repair or replace public boat landings.
• $7 million in DNR property development designed to improve accessibility.
• $7 million for the Kettle Moraine Springs Fish Hatchery.
• $6 million for local assistance grants.
The measure also would cap purchases at 1.9 million acres and require the sale of 10,000 acres of state land by 2017.
“The Stewardship program is a great way for Wisconsin to protect and preserve its land for the citizens who love to hunt, fish, and play in the outdoors,” LeMahieu said in his release.
Restraint, reform, and reinvestment in this budget define the focus of the Assembly’s JFC members, LeMahieu said. “Restraint by reining in the bonding authority, reform by taking a look at the program and where the money is spent, and reinvesting by taking care of the debt that we already owe and working to preserve the land we already own,” he wrote.
Conservation Congress delegates are paying close heed to developments at the Capitol regarding Stewardship. La Crosse County delegate Ray Heidel sought to reaffirm the group’s commitment to a resolution supporting Stewardship that was passed in 2007. That document included a provision to review current and future properties to see which can be safely opened to hunting, fishing, and trapping. It also sought to increase access through improved signage and the creation of a directory of all Stewardship-funded lands, including all public access information.
The lack of follow-up has been disturbing to some.
“Not enough time is spent on the management of land,” Heidel said. “We need to increase the funding for managers, and we need to let people know where this land is.”
Heidel’s motion passed unanimously.
Another motion by congress delegate Marc Schultz, also from La Crosse County, affirmed the level of spending on Stewardship included in the governor’s budget proposal. It, too, passed unanimously by a voice vote.
Congress vice chair Larry Bonde, of Manitowoc County, supported the reaffirmation of the 2007 commitment to the Stewardship program. Bonde was a member of the DNR’s Stewardship Advisory Committee created the same year. “These were the issues brought up and agreed on during the negotiations,” Bonde said.
Bonde still chafes at the manner in which those negotiations were handled and the minimal representation afforded to hunters, anglers, and trappers. “The committee was stacked against sportsmen by then-DNR deputy secretary Pat Henderson,” Bonde said.
Bonde is also concerned about the level of spending for local units of government. “We understand the value of these urban parks, but we don’t believe Stewardship should pay these exorbitant amounts for small-parcel urban parks,” he said.
Act 95, passed by the Legislature and signed into law in 2011, was another attempt to deal with the access issue. The law directed the DNR to make a written directory of all Stewardship land that is open for public access within 24 months. The law also called for “a written list of all Stewardship land that was acquired before Oct. 27, 2007, and for which public access has been restricted or prohibited and the reasons for that action.”
In other matters at convention, Walker emphasized the need to expand recruitment of citizens into the outdoors.
“We need to get youth and first-time hunters involved,” he said. To make that happen, Walker reiterated his emphasis on simplification of the rules governing hunting, fishing, and trapping: “We need to make it easier to get people involved.”