Legislative changes preserve land preservation program
The Wisconsin Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program is an environmental success story that I’ve supported throughout my tenure in the Legislature. The program allows the DNR to buy and preserve land for generations to come. Some of Wisconsin’s “best-kept secrets” for outdoor enthusiasts may be found on Stewardship land.
The 2011-13 state budget authorizes the program through 2020 while borrowing $60 million per year—a reduction from the previous $86 million annually. While some were quick to criticize the Legislature for authorizing less borrowing, the fact is the reduction was required to preserve the program and keep it viable and affordable for taxpayers. Through the years, the borrowing limit increased nearly three-fold. In our current economy, returning to a more reasonable level was necessary and appropriate.
The Legislature also restored much-needed oversight and accountability to the program. Oversight was virtually eliminated by the previous administration and made it more difficult for lawmakers to determine if money was spent appropriately. At one point, the Legislature was completely cut out of the process, leaving taxpayers wondering who was minding the land purchase store. In the new budget, legislative oversight is increased. The Joint Finance Committee may review any purchase of more than $250,000. The committee could also review projects less than $250,000 under certain circumstances. The previous threshold for review was $750,000.
Another important issue is information regarding location and access to Stewardship properties. The 2009 Legislature removed a requirement for the DNR to create a Stewardship land directory that would have provided information of lands open to the public. The reason for the change was a mystery, as was information regarding locations of Stewardship properties. Fortunately, the Assembly has passed new legislation to reinstate this requirement. I am pleased to be the Senate author of this bill and believe more information will better serve taxpayers and the program itself.
I believe in the Stewardship program and the value it provides for protecting and preserving Wisconsin’s most precious natural resources. Likewise, I believe Wisconsin taxpayers recognize this value and have shown their commitment to the program since its inception. But I also believe a public perception exists that the program maintains a “look, but don’t touch” policy in regards to the public’s ability to access and use Stewardship land. That perception might change as these new measures are enacted into law. I hope it does.
Taxpayers have funded purchases of hundreds of thousands of acres the last 20 years. With the exception of truly sensitive areas, they should be allowed to access and enjoy those lands to their fullest potential. Further, the state must be more active in educating the public of where those lands are, how they may be accessed, and which outdoor opportunities are available to them.
The Stewardship program will continue to be an environmental success story for the decade to come, and these reforms will lend to that success.
Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, can be reached in Madison at P.O. Box 7882, Madison, WI 53707-7882 or by calling toll-free 1-800-578-1457. He may be reached in the district at (262) 742-2025 or at www.senatorkedzie.com.