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team knowles-nelson calls on legiSLature to renew stewardship for 10 years

Our coalition of nearly 70 organizations sent a memo to all state legislators calling for reauthorization of knowles-nelson and robust funding for the program. released on may 17th, 2021, the memo demonstrates the tremendous range of organizations that support the stewardship program.

Dear Legislators:

We write to express our support for a 10-year reauthorization of the Warren Knowles-Gaylord Nelson Stewardship Program, as well as continued robust funding. This important program fuels key sectors of Wisconsin’s economy, particularly the outdoor recreation industry. We represent hunting, fishing, forestry, and conservation groups as well as local governments, recreation, and business interests.

For 30 years, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program has been protecting our lakes and streams, purchasing and developing parks and trails close to home, providing world-class recreational opportunities across the state, and supporting critical wildlife habitat. Let’s keep it that way.

Stewardship has been a resounding success. Because of Knowles-Nelson, local governments and nonprofit groups receive state matching grants to purchase land or easements for forestry, conservation, and recreation. And we have a vital source of funding for the development and maintenance of our waterways, parks, and trail systems.

All Wisconsinites benefit from Knowles-Nelson. Parks, boating facilities, and paths close to home provide recreational opportunities and help businesses attract and retain a talented workforce. Intact forests support the timber economy and are home to thousands of miles of trails. Conserved wetlands protect our communities from floodwaters and filter our drinking water. Today, we need a renewed long-term commitment to Wisconsin’s land, water, and recreation infrastructure.

Overwhelming, Bipartisan Support for Continuing the Stewardship Program

A 2020 statewide survey found that 92% of respondents want their legislators to “continue to protect natural areas, wildlife habitat, and parks in Wisconsin through the Stewardship Program,” rather than stopping those conservation actions (a mere four percent). This view cuts across party lines, with 88 percent of Republicans, 90 percent of independents and 97 percent of Democrats saying they want legislators to continue the program.

Outdoor Recreation

In the past year, more people than ever have taken advantage of our state’s outdoor recreation opportunities, and we all expect that demand to continue. Outdoor recreation is a significant driver of economic activity in Wisconsin. According to a 2020 study by the Wisconsin Department Tourism, more than 93,000 jobs are supported by outdoor recreation, and $7.8 billion is contributed to the state gross domestic product by the outdoor recreation industry. For example:

  • The Ice Age Trail, one of less than a dozen National Scenic Trails in the United States, has a $355 million annual economic impact in Wisconsin.
  • Wisconsin residents spend $1 billion to $2 billion on snowmobiling each year.
  • A 2016 study from Trout Unlimited found that fishing in the Driftless Area brings in well over $1.6 billion a year to local economies.
  • An economic impact study by the Outdoor Industry Association shows cycling contributes $1.4 billion to our state coffers and provides more than 13,000 jobs.

But without a 10-year reauthorization and robust funding of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, we will undermine this vitally important economic activity.

Stewardship Investments Returns Billions of Dollars in Benefits Each Year

Every year, lands conserved with Knowles-Nelson dollars return $2 billion in natural services. That means that every year Knowles-Nelson Stewardship lands return nearly twice as much to Wisconsin as we have invested over the last 30 years.

Nature works for us every day as long as we protect its basic integrity. Climate regulation, flood mitigation, water supplies, biodiversity protection, and recreational opportunities are all services provided to us by Knowles-Nelson lands.

Long-Term Certainty is Needed for the Program

In the last state budget, the Legislature and Governor only approved a two-year extension of the Stewardship Program. That short timeframe severely limits the ability of nonprofit groups and local governments to plan, fundraise, and implement projects that benefit Wisconsin residents.

Planning and executing Stewardship projects can take many years, meaning landowners, funders, nonprofits, and local governments need certainty about the long-term future of the program for projects to be viable. In the two previous funding cycles, the Legislature reauthorized the program for 10 additional years each time in order to provide that needed assurance.

We urge the Legislature to continue to support this tremendously popular program by passing a long-term, well-funded reauthorization of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.

The memo is signed by all the organizations listed below.

Hiker perched on a circle of stones overlooking the landscape.

About the
Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program

For 30 years, the Stewardship Program has protected Wisconsin’s land, water, and wildlife.

The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program is a tremendously successful environmental conservation program that protects our lakes and streams, conserves working forests, secures critical wildlife habitats, and provides countless opportunities for outdoor recreation both close to home and across Wisconsin.

But most people have never heard of Knowles-Nelson. The program works behind the scenes to make it possible for conservation organizations and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to purchase land, to build trails, to maintain our parks and boating facilities, and to take care of our shorelines. The program is up for renewal in 2025, and our legislators need to know that caring for Wisconsin’s land and water is a top priority.

Named after two former Wisconsin governors — Warren Knowles, a Republican, and Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat — the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program honors Wisconsin’s bipartisan commitment to land and water protection.

Since its inception in 1989, Republicans and Democrats across the state have championed the program because our land, water, and wildlife don’t have political affiliations. We all want Wisconsin to be a healthy, thriving place to live, work, and play. According to recent polls, 9 out of 10 Wisconsinites support the Stewardship Program!

Knowles-Nelson is currently funded through June 2026. That means we’ll have to work with legislators to ensure that renewed funding for the program is included in the 2025 state budget. We’re asking them to reauthorize the program for 10 years and to restore funding that has been cut from the program over the last decade.

Team Knowles Nelson badge with a bird taking flight.
Group repairing a walkway over a creek.


Do you love Wisconsin's land and water? Then Team Knowles-Nelson is for you!

We are made up of thousands of individuals and dozens of organizations committed to ensuring that the state of Wisconsin funds vital land and water conservation efforts. Together, we delivered thousands of messages and phone calls to legislators’ offices during the 2019 and 2021 budget debates. We helped to secure a six years of funding for the Stewardship Program. Now we have our sights set on reforming legislative abuses that are strangling the program and restoring funding cuts that were made over the last decade.

So what does Team Knowles-Nelson do? We advocate for the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, because it’s Wisconsin’s best land and water conservation program. We research land and water conservation around the state. We promote the good work that nonprofits and local governments do with Stewardship funds. We talk to legislators, the governor, and our friends and neighbors about the importance of caring for Wisconsin’s land and water.

What happens when you join Team Knowles-Nelson? We’ll keep you updated on our work and let you know when it’s time to speak up for the Stewardship Program. We make it easy to connect with your legislators at the right time and with the right message. Every single voice counts. Together, we’ll make sure that the state of Wisconsin provides the funding we need to protect Wisconsin’s land, water, and wildlife.

A group of people on a hike in autumn.

Research & resources

In-depth analyses of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program

Knowles-Nelson grants work behind the scenes to protect public lands and build the amenities that help us all enjoy nature both close to home and far away. Too often, it’s hard to see the cumulative impact of the Stewardship Program. That’s where our research comes in. We look at the big picture of Wisconsin’s investments in land and water conservation, and we bring that big picture to life with detailed examples of Knowles-Nelson projects from around the state. The research shows how land and water conservation is a key investment in green infrastructure, the natural systems that clean our air and water, nourish our souls, and provide wildlife habitat. We quantify the services provided by nature so that policymakers can understand the enormous long-term value of investing in Wisconsin’s land and water. And we look at how time spent in nature improves our mental and physical health.

Now is the Time to Act

Please, speak up now for Wisconsin’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. The governor and state legislators must act to renew and strengthen the program or it will soon expire. Design personalized postcards that show your love of Wisconsin’s land and water, and we’ll print and mail them to the governor and your legislators. It’s free, and it’s more important than ever to let our elected officials know that people all across our state are committed to caring for our land, water, and wildlife. When you write your legislators, we’ll also sign you up for Team Knowles-Nelson so that you can receive updates on our work and alerts that let you know how to speak up for stewardship at the right time, with the right messages, directed to the right people.

grants to support the Ice Age Trail
Wisconsin acres protected by Knowles-Nelson
$350 Million
in grants to nonprofits and local governments
of Wisconsin land is conserved
Grants to support local parks, trails and campgrounds
$2 billion
annual economic value of Knowles-Nelson lands
grants to support Wisconsin Boating facilities
annual cost per Wisconsin resident
$24 Billion
forestry industry supported
Team Knowles Nelson badge with a bird taking flight.

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