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Knowles-Nelson Updates: Recent Wins, Upcoming Supreme Court Battle, and Expanding Our Team

The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship world is busy these days! We're excited to share updates on the Wisconsin Supreme Court case involving Knowles-Nelson, recent grant successes, and to introduce you to a new team member at Gathering Waters.

Supreme Court to Hear Knowles-Nelson Case

In October, we wrote to you with the news that the WI Department of Justice (DOJ) had sued the legislature, arguing that the legislature is violating the WI Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine. The Court recently announced that they will consider just one part of the case and that is the argument related to the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. Oral arguments are scheduled for April. 

The Department of Justice argues that the Joint Finance Committee’s (JFC) practice of allowing a single, anonymous lawmaker to block any Knowles-Nelson grant for any reason is unconstitutional. DOJ points out that the entire legislature already passed laws creating the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, funding the program, and providing the Department of Natural Resources with detailed direction on how to administer the program. To allow a single legislator to step in after the fact and block the DNR’s execution of the program amounts to the legislature taking executive power. It is the legislature’s job to pass laws. It is the executive branch’s job (the Governor and the agencies that report to him) to implement the law. 

The court case is important for several reasons and could have major impacts on the administration of the Knowles-Nelson program. If the court agrees with the Department of Justice’s arguments, the broken JFC review process could be significantly reformed or eliminated entirely, marking a major step forward for conservation efforts in WI. Arbitrary objections to worthy conservation projects have bogged down Knowles-Nelson for years. Grantees are left with little or no information about why their grants were blocked, no clear path to resolve those objections, and no clear timeline to know if or when their grant will receive a hearing or a vote. No matter how the court rules, the case is a crucial opportunity to shine a light on the broken review process and its impacts on conservation. Therefore, Gathering Waters asked the court to allow us to intervene in the case. If our motion is accepted, we’ll have an opportunity to share with the court, in detail, how arbitrary, anonymous objections have stymied essential conservation efforts. This is an unprecedented move in Gathering Waters’ 30-year history and doing so will be a major investment of time and money, but it’s vital that we continue to tell the Knowles-Nelson story and fight to improve the program.

Knowles-Nelson Wins Across WI 

We’re thrilled to share that two more major land conservation efforts have been awarded Knowles-Nelson grants: 

First, the Southern Wisconsin Bird Alliance (formerly Madison Audubon) was awarded a $1.5 million grant to permanently protect “330 acres of endangered grassland bird and monarch habitat in the historic Koshkonong Prairie of southeast Dane County.” The land has been owned by the same family for nearly 200 years. Southern WI Bird Alliance says, “The land is quite beautiful. It is covered in swaying grasses. Its gently rolling hills provide spots where you can see for miles in all directions.” The “land is providing crucial habitat for all sorts of wildlife. Birds are everywhere. Even bobolink and dickcissel nest each summer in these fields.” 

Second, the Town of Westport (just north of Madison), in partnership with Groundswell Conservancy, was just awarded an $800,000 Knowles-Nelson grant to protect nearly 100 acres of open space in a rapidly growing area near the shores of Lake Mendota. The landowner had initially intended to build a factory on the property. In the meantime, on just a handshake agreement, he allowed soccer fields and trails on the property. Many town residents assumed the land was already protected and owned by the town, so they were surprised and concerned when it was put up for sale. Now, thanks to support from generous donors, Dane County, and Knowles-Nelson, the Town of Westport purchased the land and donated a conservation easement on it to Groundswell Conservancy.  

Does your organization have a favorite project that was made possible because of Knowles-Nelson? We want to hear about it! We are building out a new series of content for our Facebook & Instagram channels and every win along the way helps to tell the story of the countless ways Knowles-Nelson connects communities through conservation. Send us a 2-3 sentence description of a favorite project, along with a photo, so we can showcase it. Be sure to include the year of completion, award amount, and acreage.

Building Our Advocacy Team 

Finally, we want to give a warm welcome to the newest member of Gathering Waters’ advocacy team, Morgan Rusnak. Morgan lives in Sturgeon Bay and also serves on the Door County Board of Supervisors. She’s involved in a dizzying array of volunteer work, including: Crossroads at Big Creek, Friends of Peninsula State Park, and Peninsula Symphonic Band. 

Morgan’s work at Gathering Waters will be focused on our outreach efforts to tell the Knowles-Nelson story and to connect conservation champions (like you!) with decision makers so we can ensure that land and water conservation continues to thrive here in Wisconsin. Welcome Morgan!

 As always, please feel free to reach out to us. We love to talk Knowles-Nelson and conservation. And, stay tuned for updates as the Supreme Court case progresses. 

– Charlie, Morgan, and all your advocates at Gathering Waters

Featured image by tyle_r, 2012.

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