Nearly 30 years ago, before bipartisanship became a dirty word, Republicans and Democrats worked together to ensure Wisconsin remained a great place to hunt, fish and recreate outdoors.
They devised the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, which has allowed the state Department of Natural Resources to buy or acquire easements for about 826,000 acres. Much of that public land is up north, though there’s some in almost every county. Rock County contains 3,728 acres of public land purchased through the stewardship program, according to a Wisconsin Policy Forum study.
The program is one of a handful that benefits nearly all Wisconsin residents. In Janesville, several parks, including portions of Traxler Park, contain land acquired with stewardship funds. The program also has helped expand the Ice Age Trail, which runs through Janesville.
It’s little wonder this program attracted bipartisan support years ago, but somewhere along the way, Republicans began to question its value, despite the program’s connection to the Republican Party and one of its most influential state leaders, former Gov. Warren Knowles.
An avid outdoorsman, Knowles worked to expand the stewardship program’s predecessor, known as the Outdoor Recreation Act Program. He’s also credited with helping to form the DNR and making pollution control one of his top priorities, according to his biography at the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame.
We hope Republicans lawmakers remember their conservation roots when considering whether to continue this program, which is set to expire next year. They took a big step in the right direction this week, voting in committee to extend the program by two years. The program’s supporters had pushed for a 10-year extension, but two years is better than nothing in a hostile political environment.
Most objections focus on the program’s use of borrowing to buy public lands. Critics claim the program has morphed into a Cookie Monster-like bureaucracy, gobbling up lands that should remain on the tax rolls. Yes, the acreage under DNR control has grown over the years but so, too, has the number of threats to the state’s pristine natural areas. There’s more work for this program to do in terms of identifying threatened areas and acquiring them when they become available years from now.
Conservatives used to believe conservatism included conserving resources. They recognized the value of preserving some land for public use, knowing that once Wisconsin loses a healthy trout stream or verdant forest, it’s gone for good. What happened to the party’s conservationists? Did they stop hunting and fishing?
The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program uses borrowing to acquire what generations from now likely will consider priceless pieces of property. The program invests in this state’s future. It’s a noble cause, one lawmakers and the governor alike should be proud to support.