Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to freeze land purchases through the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program puts our most valuable lands at risk and is bad news for Wisconsin’s economy.
Wisconsin has a long, proud history of bipartisan support for the programs that protect our beautiful outdoors. The Nelson-Knowles Stewardship Program — named for Govs. Warren Knowles (a Republican) and Gaylord Nelson (a Democrat) — is one such program.
It’s a public-private partnership that purchases and protects some of the most spectacular and diverse lands and waters in Wisconsin. These are central to the Wisconsin way of life, providing the public with areas to hunt, hike, fish, bike and canoe.
Walker’s reckless budget proposal would eliminate funding for most land acquisition by the Stewardship Program until 2028. His justification is that we can’t afford it, but he couldn’t be more wrong.
The program’s benefits to Wisconsin — and Wisconsinites — go far beyond providing us with pretty places to enjoy on a warm spring day. Lands and waters supported by the Stewardship Program contribute to Wisconsin’s economy in irreplaceable ways.
Wisconsin’s $13 billion tourism industry and $4 billion hunting and fishing industry rely on acquisition of public lands. People come from all corners of the state — and across state borders — to fish in our trout-laden streams, hunt on our vast public lands, and hike our beautiful trails. Investments through the Stewardship Program have served as the backbone of Wisconsin’s outdoor recreation industry.
We can point to local examples of the positive impact of Stewardship investment. The Eagle Eye State Natural Area is a 70-acre tract of land that was protected through a partnership between Mississippi Valley Conservancy, Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center, The Archaeological Conservancy and leveraging funding from the Stewardship Program. It includes scenic ridgetop bluffland, including native goat prairie, oak opening, sandstone cliffs and rock shelters, forest, wetlands, and a portion of the Bad Axe River.
The property is in the National Register of Historic Places for its eagle-eye rock shelter and seven effigy mounds. The area’s cultural and conservation significance are priceless. It also serves as an economic engine for local tourism. The land is open to the public for hiking, hunting, fishing, snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing, and it is a popular trout-fishing location.
Or take the famed Ice Age Trail — segments of which were purchased with stewardship dollars. This trail alone generates more than $133 million annually. It supports nearly 1,500 jobs annually, and Wisconsin’s entire outdoor recreation industry accounts for more than 140,000 jobs across the state.
But Walker’s proposal to end the Stewardship Program would jeopardize this tourism income in the future.
Wisconsin’s recreation industry extends beyond beautiful trails to the offerings of our lakes and streams, which we have access to thank to Stewardship easement programs. Anglers across the state spend $1.4 billion each year, including $445 million from out-of-state tourists who flock to fish in Wisconsin’s fresh water. This sector of the outdoor recreation industry alone supports more than 21,500 jobs.
And tourism is just one sector sustained by our public lands. Our $22 billion forestry industry includes sustainable timber harvesting in forests protected by the Stewardship Program. Freezing the state’s ability to continue acquiring forested land would put this industry’s future at risk as well.
At a time when Wisconsin needs revenue due to a state budget deficit, Walker’s proposal to freeze the Stewardship Program is counterproductive and shortsighted.Wisconsin’s remaining open spaces face increasing development pressure. If we don’t preserve them, they may be lost forever to development. And the price to preserve what may be left in 2028 could be exorbitant, as all signs point to our land increasing in value.
If we stop investing in vital and vulnerable lands today, money saved will quickly become money lost.