Our lawmakers need to hear from you that you strongly support renewal of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund for another 10 years.

The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund—or simply Stewardship—is the law that allows Wisconsinites to acquire, develop and preserve our natural heritage for “nature-based outdoor recreation.” It is vital for conserving land in Wisconsin.

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the value of the natural world as families found hiking, biking, fishing and other outdoor activities to be valuable remedies for cabin fever and for preserving their sanity.

The Ice Age Trail Alliance created the October Mammoth Challenge to encourage use of the trail. Last October, more than 7,000 people took up the challenge of hiking parts of the Ice Age Trail. More than 4,000 of them completed at least 40 miles.

The Peace Trail in Janesville saw trail use skyrocket as families sought safe, healthful outdoor recreation.

Fishing boomed. Tom Presny, former Janesville parks director and an avid fisherman, says lake parking lots were packed all summer and throughout winter. Everyone needed to get out.

Many of these activities are available because of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund. The Stewardship fund is named for Republican Gov. Warren Knowles and Democratic Gov. Gaylord Nelson. This bipartisan program was signed into law by Gov. Tommy Thompson in 1989 to “preserve valuable wildlife habitat and natural areas, protect water quality and fisheries, and expand opportunities for outdoor recreation.” Under Thompson, the program was authorized for 10 years and $25 million per year ($54 million in today’s dollars).

Stewardship supports preservation of wild places and natural land, of prairies and oak savannahs, of hunting lands and hiking trails, of fishing docks and urban parks. The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund provides the resources for all nature-based recreation in Wisconsin.

The Stewardship program needs our support this year. In recent years, demand for Stewardship grants has far exceeded available funds. The Peace Trail from Janesville to Beloit has been awaiting pavement for years, but so far has not gotten enough Stewardship funds to complete the project. Gov. Tony Evers’ budget proposes a 10-year reauthorization at $70 million. The Joint Finance Committee of the Wisconsin Legislature will begin its budget hearings April 9 at UW-Whitewater.

Because Stewardship competes with many other priorities for our tax dollars, Joint Finance Committee support is essential to keep it in the final state budget. And it is essential that lawmakers hear that Stewardship is important to you. The 10-year reauthorization at $70 million is a good start.

Wisconsin recently celebrated Leopold Week in honor of Aldo Leopold and his Land Ethic. In Leopold’s vision “… the relationships between people and land are intertwined: Care for people cannot be separated from care for the land.” The ideal of stewardship, taking care of natural resources for future Wisconsinites, is very important.

On April 22, Wisconsin and the world will celebrate Earth Day. While serving Wisconsin as a U.S. senator, Gaylord Nelson started Earth Day to increase environmental awareness.

The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program is about what Wisconsin is about—the love of nature and the great outdoors. Let us give it the resources it needs and keep it going for another ten years.

Tell your lawmakers you support the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program as proposed in the governor’s budget.

Dean Paynter is a member of the Rock Trail Coalition Ice Age Trail Advocacy Committee.