The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program has been around for decades, enabling communities and nonprofits to purchase land for conservation and public enjoyment.
Jim Welsh, the Executive Director of nonprofit conservation group Groundswell Conservancy says that the program has several important functions.
“The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program is an amazing resource of the state of Wisconsin. It’s a program that’s been around for over 30 years now, that provides funding for the DNR, for the local cities, counties, villages, and nonprofits to buy great pieces of land to form the wonderful conservation background of our state, So a village can use it to add land to a village park, we can use it to add land to a conservation area, and counties and states can do the same sort of thing,” says Welsh.
The money from these grants help to support things such as bike paths, city and county parks, and the Ice Age Trail.
Currently, the stewardship program helps purchase land with the understanding that the land will be conserved. If a municipality or organization wants to sell land bought with money from the stewardship program, they would need approval from the DNR.
But a bill recently introduced by Republican state lawmakers would loosen requirements for selling land bought with Knowles Nelson funds, potentially undermining conservation efforts the fund is intended to protect.
Specifically, it would allow communities and nonprofits who purchase land with funds from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship to then sell the land without getting any approval from the DNR, so long as they reimburse the state. All the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship landowners would need to do is inform the DNR of their intent to sell the property.
The issue first arose in Langlade County in north-central Wisconsin, after the county bought a boy scout camp using money from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship. Now that the camp sits vacant years later, the county hopes to sell the land.
Representative Calvin Callahan, a Republican from Tomahawk,, helped write the bill. He says the intention is to streamline the process of communities and nonprofits selling their land.
“Unfortunately, there is a lot of red tape these recipients must cut through in order to sell, transfer, or convert this purchased land bought with stewardship funds. Assembly Bill 852 will simplify this process for non-governmental conservation organizations, counties, and local governments from start to finish, while still maintaining the intent of the stewardship program,” says Callahan.
Conservationists say the bill could defang the intent behind the state’s stewardship program. Charles Carlin is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Gathering Waters, a nonprofit that focuses on defending land trusts across Wisconsin.
“I think (it) relates to the trust and the faith that the landowners and donors of conservation projects put in the land trust security outreach projects, and in the state of Wisconsin to be good stewards of land. So when someone chooses to put their land in a conservation, even if they’re selling that land to a state or land trust, they’re often doing that at what is known as a bargain sale, meaning that they are selling it for below what they could be selling that land for on the open market because they want to see their lands conserved forever,” says Carlin.
Carlin says that there are also issues with cities and nonprofits turning around and selling these pieces of land for profit. Under this bill, for example, a city could buy a piece of land with funds from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship and through public donations. Then after the land has risen in value, a city would then be able to sell that property for a profit without having to pay back anyone else who contributed money to the purchasing of the land.
As of the airing of this broadcast, eight groups have registered against the bill, including Gathering Waters and Clean Wisconsin. Only one group, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, has registered in support of the bill.
The authors of the bill could not be reached for comment by airtime.
It’s not the first time Republicans have come at the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, which is typically renewed every decade. Last year during the state budget process, Republicans only renewed the program for four years, and cut funding for the program to $32 million, less than half than what was proposed by Evers.
Also discussed at today’s committee meeting on Forestry, Parks, and Outdoor Recreation, is a bill that would make the DNR to set aside money from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship for water infrastructure in parks across the state, such as bathrooms and water faucets.
The bills have been introduced in both chambers, though today’s meeting was in the Assembly.
Photo courtesy: Mike Benna / UNSPLASH