In her first trip to Wisconsin as a member of the Obama administration, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell is expected to visit La Crosse this week to view the Mississippi River and promote a federal program that provides money for public recreational land.
Jewell, who in 2013 became the 51st person to lead the Department of the Interior, plans to tour the Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge and to announce the allocation of more than $300 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Established in 1964, the fund uses royalties from offshore gas and oil leases to provide money for the purchase and preservation of land by federal, state and local governments.
Though authorized at $900 million a year, Congress has typically released only about a third of that.
“Congress raids the account and uses it for other purposes,” said Justin Bartolomeo, spokesman for the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition, which represents hundreds of groups that support the fund.
Over the decades, Wisconsin has received about $211 million for national parklands such as the Upper Mississippi River refuge and Chequamegon National Forest. La Crosse County has received about $636,000 for parks and school playgrounds, although the last grant to the county was made in 1991 for acquisition of parkland in Onalaska.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used the fund to purchase land on Brice Prairie for a refuge visitors center.
Most recently, the state is set to sign a conservation easement on 22,000 acres of private forest in Douglas County using $3.5 million from the fund, along with $1.5 million in state funding.
Dick Steffes, who retired in 2012 as head of the Department of Natural Resources’ Real Estate division, oversaw dispersement of the fund to state and local governments. He said having federal funds attached helped projects win approval from the governor’s office.
“It showed somebody else cared besides just DNR,” Steffes said. “It helped financially as well as in principle.”
The Department of Interior requested $575 million for acquisition of federal land in 2015 and $325 million for grants to states. Congress approved $306 million.
Jewell is expected to announce how that money will be awarded today.
The law is set to expire in September unless Congress takes action, but reauthorization has stalled amid disagreement over how the money should be distributed. Conservatives want more of the money directed to states rather than federal agencies.
Supporters of the fund are optimistic after a Senate committee last week approved an energy bill that would permanently reauthorize the fund.
A bill in the House has 140 cosponsors — including Rep. Ron Kind of La Crosse and fellow Democrat Tim Walz of Minnesota — but may not have the 218 votes needed to pass.
Steffes said he recently met with Wisconsin’s senators and six of its House representatives to lobby for reauthorization. He notes that only Democrats have so far signed on to the bill.
“That concerns me,” he said. “Natural resources should be a bi-partisan issue.”
Jewell will tour the Upper Mississippi refuge, a 240,000-acre fish and bird habitat that stretches across four states and attracts 3.5 million visitors each year, generating an estimated $226 million for local economies, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A former banker and CEO of the outdoor retailer REI, Jewell is the second woman to serve as Secretary of the Interior, an agency with more than 70,000 employees. (As a member of the cabinet, the Secretary of the Interior is eighth in line of succession to the presidency, although as a naturalized citizen who was born in England, Jewell would be ineligible to serve.)
Charged with management of about a fifth of the nation’s land and 1.7 billion acres of seas, the department oversees park lands and provides access to energy resources. It includes the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the Office of Surface Mining.