PRESS EDITORIAL: Imperiled again: one of Wisconsin’s great achievements

Name one achievement by the state government in the past 30 years that has done more to benefit the people, land, water and wildlife of Wisconsin, as well as the state’s essential outdoor recreation economy and its overall quality of life, than the creation of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund.

If this were a quiz, that would be a trick question, because there is nothing that surpasses the positive impact of the Stewardship Fund.

The legislation that established this institution in 1989—bipartisan and proud of it as evidenced by its name honoring Republican and Democratic governors—has done incalculable good in ways that range from saving endangered natural areas to strengthening the tourism business sector.

How ironic then that the Stewardship Fund has been threatened time and again and that its supporters have had to fight for its very survival. Those supporters were blindsided when Gov. Tony Evers proposed a budget that offers such a weak endorsement of the fund that it may be left more vulnerable than it has been in years.

Conservationists expected Evers to reverse the backsliding on environmental issues that was the norm in the Scott Walker administration, and they were buoyed by reports of measures in his budget to restore water quality protection and deal with climate-change issues.

Then came Evers’ proposal to reauthorize the Stewardship Fund for a mere two years instead of the 10 years that has been the practice in the past and is considered essential to keep stewardship initiatives viable.

The conservation easements and land acquisitions that are at the core of the fund’s most important work need a more distant time horizon than two years. Some projects might never get started if the fund’s future is not ensured beyond the current budget cycle.

What’s more, requiring reauthorization in just two years gives the fund’s enemies another crack at disabling or killing it. The fund still has the support of both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature, but there is an environmentally retarded wing that harbors resentment for the program.

That mentality was on display at a confirmation hearing for Preston Cole as the new DNR secretary when State Sen. Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, asked Cole whether the state was reaching a tipping point with too much land that is off the tax rolls in stewardship programs.

The obtuse reasoning of this comment disguised as a question reflects the worn-out conservative political dogma of those who view government ownership of land as a manifestation of creeping socialism and who would gladly sacrifice valuable natural areas to further their pinched ideology.

Saving natural areas threatened by development may be the most noble contribution of the Stewardship Fund, but in many cases this has also had a positive effect on tax revenue by enhancing the value of nearby taxable land. Nature preserves are coveted assets that encourage community growth and economic development.

If the imaginative Cedar Vineyards subdivision proposed for lakeshore land at the far south edge of Port Washington comes to fruition, for example, it will be because a public nature preserve enabled by the Stewardship Fund will be part of it.

The fund works by providing matching grants to local governments, land trusts, other conservation organizations and citizen groups that support parks and nature preserves. Funds equal to the grants have to be raised to qualify for Stewardship Fund help.

Stewardship grants help pay to protect land available for hunting, camping and hiking and waters for fishing and boating. They help care for trails, parks and waterways and support wildlife by protecting forests and other habitat from encroachment by development.

Unrecognized by critics and perhaps underestimated by the governor, the program is extremely popular with the public, according to surveys, and is supported by an eclectic assembly of organizations. One of them is Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, which appealed to its members to urge legislative support for the Stewardship Fund to “purchase conservation easements as well as key properties that ensure hunters and anglers have places to do the things we love while also funding maintenance of our public lands and public waters.”

Residents of Ozaukee and Washington counties owe a particular debt of gratitude to the Stewardship Fund, for through its partnership with the Ozaukee-Washington Land Trust (OWLT), more than 30 nature preserves, all open to the public, have been created. These include such stunning examples of nature’s wild beauty in or near our communities as Lion’s Den Gorge, Sauk Creek Nature Preserve and the Mequon Nature Preserve.

Tom Stolp, executive director of the OWLT, points out that the two counties’ “feverish pace of development means that we are racing against the clock to protect the places you love.”

Citizens who value the features of nature that add so much to life in Wisconsin can join the effort to protect those places by contacting legislators of both parties and urging them to the take the initiative that the governor passed on and give the Stewardship Fund a guaranty of at least 10 more years to do its good work.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494
 

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