State budget moves forestry HQ north

Madison — Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2017-19 state budget calls for major changes at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that include moving the forestry bureau to northern Wisconsin, ending the forestry mill tax, and shutting down the DNR’s magazine.

The DNR budget will be cut by 2.6 percent ($14.6 million less) in 2018 from 2017, and then see a .3 percent increase in 2019.

The DNR would lose eight positions in 2018 from its current 2,549, then drop to 2,505 positions in 2019.

The proposed budget calls for no increases in hunting and fishing license fees or stamps.

Big forestry change

The biggest changes in the proposed budget are to the DNR Division of Forestry.

In a brief three lines of text, Walker eliminates forestry funding via the long-standing property mill tax and replaces it with state general purpose revenues.

In the 2015 fiscal year, the forestry account received $108 million, of which $83 million came from the property mill tax.

The mill tax is added to all real property taxes and has been the bulk of funding for state forest activities, including fire control, tree nurseries, invasive species management, and pest control.

Forest officials have often touted that the mill tax was the backbone of the state’s outstanding forest program, benefitting rural loggers, consultants, and businesses, as well as wildlife and clean water programs.

Walker said he doesn’t want any state tax to be on people’s property tax statements.

Instead, a “sum sufficient” appropriation will be made to fund the same amount in the next biennium.

Tom Evenson, Walker’s deputy communications director, said that every time a property value went up the tax went up and this will save the average property owner about $27 per year.

However, others who have worked in forestry said they have seen how other state forestry programs relying on general revenues have declined, whereas Wisconsin has had an exemplary program.

Carol Nielsen, retired after working in forestry 31 years for the DNR (the last 21 specializing in private forestry), worked with the Managed Forest Law and also with the 20 northeast states through the U.S. Forest Service.

“My concern, having seen how the mill tax was so successful at making Wisconsin a leader in forestry, is that it provided a stable funding source,” Nielsen said. “Once it goes to a general funding source, there is no guarantee it will still be there.”

Nielsen compares it to the legislature’s decision to drop price indexing on gasoline to fund road maintenance.

Had they not eliminated the tax increases the state wouldn’t now be facing the decline in roads without adequate funding for repairs.

Also, Nielsen said the mill tax is responsible for paying about $13 million per year of the Knowles/Nelson Stewardship debt.

Wisconsin’s state parks are another example of where general purpose revenues once funded a program, but have since been eliminated.

Nielsen wondered where the money will come from to help pay Stewardship debts when GPR money falls short and the mill tax is gone. If GPR revenues decline will the state sell off even more public land, she wondered?

The budget’s second big change to forestry directs the DNR Division of Forestry to move its headquarters and 56.5 employees out of Madison and into a northern city.

The potential move was studied in the 2015-17 state budget. It would cost about $6 million to buy land, build a new facility, and move staff. In addition, operation costs and debt service would be another $500,000.

All in, the 20-year cost to the state was estimated at about $10.8 million.

If the state leased a building and furnishings, moving expenses were estimated at $1 million the first year. Leasing costs for the next 19 years is estimated at about $9.4 million.

In addition, 65 percent of the DNR’s forestry employees are already located in the two northern districts.

When these estimates went to the Natural Resources Board in September, several board members wondered how such a cost could be considered during tight budget times.

In Walker’s budget statement he said, “This provides the opportunity for 56.5 full-time equivalent positions to relocate closer to the areas of greatest demand, enhancing the department’s opportunities to work closely with partners and stakeholders in the implementation of forestry programs.”

Other changes

The proposal does allow fees collected for hunting pheasants at the Richard Bong Recreational Area to be deposited in the pheasant stamp account. This will help to ensure pheasant stocking at Bong in the future.

The four-color Natural Resources Magazine published by the DNR will end its run the February 2018 issue. People now subscribe to the magazine for $8.97 per year, but the subscription cost is also built into the conservation patron license. Although the magazine breaks even, Walker justified the cut by saying it will save patron license buyers $75,000 in aggregate.

The actual savings per license would be about $6 if the cost of a patron license is reduced.

Two positions (currently vacant) responsible for the magazine will be eliminated.

Walker also recommends proceeding with a DNR reorganization, as directed by DNR secretary Cathy Stepp in December, to increase efficiencies and focus on core missions.

The budget makes no mention of the Knowles/Nelson Stewardship program. This means that Stewardship is continued at the level it was (about $33 million) in the last state budget.

However, some legislators have indicated they may work to reduce that funding during budget negotiations over concerns with the increased debt.

To make state forest timber sales easier, Walker recommends raising the minimum from $3,000 to $10,000 at which a timber sale must be publicly advertised. He also eliminated the requirement that state timber sales must be advertised in a newspaper.

The proposed budget allows the DNR to charge varying admission and campsite fees, based on demand, at popular state parks. The annual state park sticker could also change following a study that the DNR and the Division of Motor Vehicles will conduct on a potential recreational passport that would be purchased when drivers register their vehicles.

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