Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program - A group of people surround an oversized check for $2.3 million dollars for funding the Cedar Gorge-Clay Bluffs project

Gov. Evers funds major conservation projects, including Cedar Gorge-Clay Bluffs

Funding through the American Rescue Plan will support five conservation projects that were awarded Knowles-Nelson grants.

On August 18, 2022, Governor Evers awarded the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust $2.3 million to support their acquisition of Cedar Gorge-Clay Bluffs along the Lake Michigan shoreline. The property is a gem, 131 acres overlooking Lake Michigan. The award fills the last remaining gap in the land trust’s fundraising campaign and ensures that the property will now be a nature preserve, protected, in perpetuity, for the public.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a detailed story on the funding and the story behind it.

In addition to the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust project, the Governor also awarded funds to several other important conservation projects:

  • Milwaukee Public Schools Outdoor Spaces
  • Caroline Lake Preserve, Ashland County
  • Forest County Forest
  • Sand Creek, Bayfield County Forest

What about Knowles-Nelson?

Each conservation project to which Governor Evers dedicated funds through the American Rescue Plan had been awarded grants through the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, but the grants were stalled had by an anonymous objection from a Republican member of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) awarded Ozaukee Washington Land Trust a $2.3 million Knowles-Nelson grant in June 2021. More than a year later, the land trust still had not received the money and the holdup imperiled the entire project. How come?

Any Knowles-Nelson grant above $250,000 is subject to review by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. It’s a powerful committee, comprised of members of both chambers of the legislature, that is responsible for writing the state budget and approving many expenditures. Their oversight of Knowles-Nelson grants is supposed to be one final check in the award process. Long before the committee reviews any grant, the DNR goes through a rigorous, competitive process to determine which projects merit Knowles-Nelson awards.

An obscure legislative rule allows any member of the Joint Finance Committee to object to any Knowles-Nelson grant that it reviews. One anonymous objection halts the grant award. By law, the committee is required to schedule a meeting to discuss the grant. This is the time when legislators would share their concerns, debate the merits of the project, and vote on whether or not to award the grant. But, that’s not what happens.

Instead, the co-chairs of the Joint Finance Committee, Howard Marklein and Mark Born, failed to schedule any meetings to discuss the grant. The result is that the objection of one committee member (out of 16) effectively killed the grant with neither a debate nor a vote.

The Wisconsin State Journal’s Editorial Board recently lambasted the practice, saying, “A coward sits on the Legislature’s budget committee. A GOP senator or representative killed funding for a land conservation project and doesn’t have the backbone to own that decision. It’s a sad day for democracy when elected public officials hide their official acts from the people.”

Governor Evers Acts

Governor Evers stepped in and acted to support conservation in Wisconsin when the Joint Finance Committee refused to do so. Unfortunately, anonymous objections with no subsequent debate have become the norm on the Joint Finance Committee. Every project that Governor Evers funded with American Rescue Plan dollars languished before the committee because of an anonymous objection.

The American Rescue Plan dollars are a one-time allocation. Land trusts, local governments, and other Knowles-Nelson applicants will still have to work with the Joint Finance Committee on future projects.

What comes next?

Gathering Waters: Wisconsin’s Alliance for Land Trusts is working closely with conservation partners, champions in the legislature, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Governor’s office to address the troubling trend of anonymous, seemingly arbitrary objections to worthy conservation projects.

Today, let’s celebrate the success of Cedar Gorge-Clay Bluffs and the other Knowles-Nelson projects that can now move forward with full funding.

Show your thanks to Governor Evers with a thank you email.

Featured image courtesy of Ozaukee-Washington Land Trust, picturing Cedar Gorge-Clay Bluffs supporters, Ozaukee-Washington Land Trust staff, and staff from the Wisconsin DNR gathering to celebrate funding for Cedar Gorge-Clay Bluffs through the American Rescue Plan.

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