Wisconsin’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, one of our country’s greatest state-led conservation initiatives, is vulnerable.

The program is named after former Wisconsin Govs. Warren Knowles and Gaylord Nelson, conservation giants who appreciated the importance of Wisconsin’s natural resources to wildlife and people alike.

Since its creation in 1989, state bond funding from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program has fueled the protection or restoration of more than 690,000 acres of public lands in Wisconsin. That’s nearly 1,080 square miles, or more than 10 times the size of Milwaukee. Its impact is felt across the state, with acquisitions or restoration happening in 71 of 72 counties.

Although the program has been reauthorized twice, in 1999 and in 2007, the current authorization is set to expire next year. The outdoorsmen and women of the state who have benefited so much from these natural resources investments now look to the Legislature to create the next chapter of Wisconsin’s rich conservation story.

However, many decision-makers in Madison are conspicuously silent on the issue. That’s why Ducks Unlimited applauds Rep. Amy Loudenbeck of Clinton who has listened to the concerns of the hunting, fishing, trapping and broader conservation community by introducing legislation reauthorizing the stewardship program through 2030.

Loudenbeck’s long-term solution reduces debt service as compared to previous versions of the program. Yet her plan gives increased certainty to our Department of Natural Resources and nonprofit conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited, which have historically utilized program dollars to deliver conservation outcomes for the public to enjoy. Loudenbeck has said her plan “bridges a gap between being fiscally responsible and protecting Wisconsin’s conservation values,” and she is correct.

Ducks Unlimited has relied on the Knowles-Nelson program to help meet the mission of conserving wetland habitats. Thanks to this program, Ducks Unlimited has protected more than 1,000 acres of waterfowl habitat and opened those acres to waterfowl hunters, birders, hikers and other wildlife enthusiasts.

From the Mississippi River to Rush Lake, Ducks Unlimited has used Knowles-Nelson to help fund six acquisitions of prime waterfowl habitat. But beyond that, the organization then uses those acquisitions as match for large federal grants. Ducks Unlimited has been awarded more than $4 million in conservation funding for Wisconsin through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act because of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund.

Loudenbeck’s proposal is a much-welcomed start to a critically important conversation about the future of Wisconsin’s premier natural resource conservation program. We encourage other lawmakers to join in the conversation and reauthorize this crucial tool to wildlife and outdoor recreation.

Greg Meissner is Wisconsin state chairman for Ducks Unlimited, a North American wetlands and waterfowl conservation organization.

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