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Editorial | Republicans shouldn’t abandon their historic commitment to conservation

Polling shows that nine out of 10 Wisconsinites support the Knowles-Nelson stewardship initiative.

The 1960s was a decade to remember, but one thing Wisconsinites often forget is that this was a time when two of the state’s most prominent elected officials were conservationists. One was a Democrat and one was a Republican, but they both believed in the importance of environmental conservation.

Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat, was the state’s junior member of the U.S. Senate and is perhaps best known as the founder of Earth Day.

Warren Knowles, a Republican, was a three-term governor and “a leading figure in efforts to make the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources a comprehensive resource management agency that puts an emphasis on protecting the environment,” according to this editorial by The Cap Times.

Do these names seem familiar? They are the namesakes of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, the state’s main vehicle for funding land conservation projects that was created in 1989.

Conservation is a high priority for Wisconsin citizens, but it is no longer a bipartisan pursuit. Republicans on the state legislature’s Joint Finance Committee have raised objections to many important land conservation projects over the past two years, including the largest land conservation effort in the state’s history: the Pelican River Forest.

The Cap Times said, “The objections, which could upend the project, are not just at odds with the state’s bipartisan commitment to conservation but with environmental and economic common sense.”

The Pelican River Forest is a 70,000-acre block of forestland east of Rhinelander that was purchased in 2021 by the Conservation Fund, “designed to safeguard the largest remaining unprotected block of privately owned forested land in the state,” according to the organization.

In 2022, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board approved a $15.5 million conservation easement to preserve roughly 56,000 acres of the forest. The other 12,000 have already been protected by previous conservation easements.

Wisconsin Public Radio reported that, “The bulk of the easement would be funded by a $10.8 million federal forest legacy grant, but the state would also have to contribute funding.”

About $4 million is slated to come from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, but The Cap Times candidly opined that “legislative Republicans have a problem with that.”

State Sen. Mary Felzkowski, R-Tomahawk, has raised objections to the project and says other members of the Joint Finance Committee share her concerns that “northern Wisconsin already has substantial swathes of protected public lands and points out that some local government officials in the region worry about limits on future development.”

But development won’t be halted. It will simply be well-managed.

“Once the easements are sold to the state, the land will then be sold in large or small blocks to other buyers, who will have to agree to allow open access to the public for things such as hiking, hunting, and riding ATVs and snowmobiles,” according to reporting by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

What happens next is unknown. But The Cap Times phrased their stance this way, “Legislative Republicans should honor the legacy of Warren Knowles and do what’s best for Wisconsin by supporting the Pelican River Forest project.”

Featured image by John Gremmer, 2020.

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