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Devil's Lake East Bluff

Lawmakers voted on Gov. Tony Evers' budget for the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund and state park funding. The fund has helped preserve recreational land like the Ice Age Trail, which runs through Devil's Lake State Park. 

The Republican-controlled budget committee on Tuesday accepted parts of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ plans to restore state support for popular recreational land preservation and park programs, and approved part of an Evers’ clean water initiative without a fee increase opposed by large dairy operations.

Evers proposed a two-year extension of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, which is due to expire in 2020 after being reduced and revised over the last eight years by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature.

The Joint Finance Committee voted 12-4 along party lines to extend the program through 2022.

Some conservation groups were pushing for a full 10-year renewal, but Evers called for short-term funding to allow time for a blue-ribbon task force to hash out the fund’s priorities so it can be stabilized following a series of GOP moves that sharply curtailed conservation of public recreation land.

“People love the stewardship program, but you have to realize it comes at a high cost,” said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, budget committee co-chairwoman. “We’re trying to be fiscally responsible.”

Republicans approved a $1.2 million increase for park staffing and operations, about $700,000 less than what Evers requested. While the parks budget has remained balanced without tax funding, relatively small changes in weather could discourage park users and quickly reverse the system’s financial fortunes, the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said.

Less land conserved

The stewardship fund purchases land and conservation easements to provide park and recreation acreage for the state and local governments in addition to paying for improvements to parks.

Since Republicans took over state government in 2011, they have expressed concern that too much land is being taken off tax rolls and that spending is too high. In 2013, Walker and the Legislature ordered the Department of Natural Resources to sell 10,000 acres of the 1.5 million acres it owned.

A variety of restrictions on new purchases were imposed — including a requirement that all stewardship land be open to hunting, which inhibited landowners from selling conservation easements — causing spending to dwindle.

The stewardship program began in 1989, funded by borrowing through the sale of low-interest 20-year bonds.

Repayment costs grew to $46 million by 2009. The state temporarily cut costs between 2010 and 2012 by postponing principle payments, but the price tag rebounded to between $68 million and $82 million annually from 2013 to this year, according to the fiscal bureau.

The payments on existing bonds are projected to peak in 2020 and then fall steadily for 20 years, the bureau said.

No CAFO fee increase

The committee also approved part of Evers’ proposal that Republicans balked at last month after a group representing large dairy operations urged them to reject it.

Under the governor’s plan, fees paid by large feedlots would be increased enough to add five Department of Natural Resources workers who would try to enforce laws and regulations aimed at reducing water pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

The finance panel majority rejected the fee increase and shifted four positions from DNR environmental management duties to CAFO enforcement. Existing CAFO fees combined with state tax dollars and revenue sources would pay for the four positions.

Part of that funding would come from a finance committee budget provision giving all CAFO fee revenue to DNR. Under current law, each of the state’s 305 CAFOs pays a $345 annual permit fee. The DNR keeps $95 while the remaining $250 goes into the state’s general fund.

In May, committee Republicans postponed a vote with co-chairman Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, saying he wanted to explore moving regulation of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, from the DNR to the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

The industry favors that move, but critics point out that DATCP has little experience enforcing clean water laws. Committee Democrats and the fiscal bureau noted that the DNR is the only state agency authorized by the federal government to enforce those laws.

The problems of inadequate staffing and fees had been noted in a 2016 report by the nonpartisan state Audit Bureau. The DNR has said Evers’ proposal for five more workers would allow it to reduce the number of CAFO permits handled by each field employee to 20, a goal set in the wake of the audit.

After the panel made its changes to Evers’ plan Tuesday, the Republican chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Audit Committee issued a statement saying changes should have been made more easily.

Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, said the additional DNR employees will bolster a permitting system that is one of the state’s primary tools for protecting water quality.

The finance committee on Tuesday also passed Evers’ proposals increasing funding for forest fire protection grants and forestry research, but those amounts were also less than what the governor sought.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the budget committee did not approve a fee increase for large farming operations known as CAFOs.

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