A blue stream meanders through a green bog area.

Largest land conservation effort faces uncertain future as groups struggle with access to Stewardship funds

The Pelican River Forest is the latest example of hurdles land conservation groups face from GOP lawmakers who object to preserving land for the public.

The Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee’s (JFC) rejection of Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program funding for the Pelican River Forest is the most recent threat facing land conservation in Wisconsin. Wisconsin Public Radio reports that spending under the Stewardship Program is at its lowest level in at least two decades, but this is not due to lack of demand.

“It is because the actions of the Joint Finance Committee have artificially suppressed how many grants actually move through Stewardship. That really creates a lot of downward pressure on how much money the DNR is actually able to get out the door, so it’s created a real crisis in conservation funding,” according to Charles Carlin, director of strategic initiatives for Gathering Waters.

The decreased funding is also not due to lack of public interest. A recent poll funded by the Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin found that 9 in 10 residents (out of about 500 surveyed) support the state legislature using dedicated public funds for land and water conservation. 

According to Wisconsin Watch, the pace of the JFC’s objections to Knowles-Nelson projects has increased under Governor Evers. Since 2019, the JFC has raised 26 objections against Stewardship land acquisitions. Under the Walker administration, from 2014 through 2018, the JFC raised 17 objections and denied only one project.

Because of legislative roadblocks to the Stewardship Program, land conservation groups have been forced to seek out other financing or develop creative solutions that avoid scrutiny by the JFC.

The fate of the Pelican River Forest, the largest land conservation project in state history, remains uncertain. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has a $10.8 million federal Forest Legacy Program grant to finance most of the Pelican River Forest project, but it needs the $4 million in matching funds from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program to trigger the grant.

Clint Miller, regional director of The Conservation Fund, said “we’re super disappointed that the Legislature appears to have closed the door to state funding. But for us, we’re still committed to getting this project done.”

Featured image by Ron Frazier, 2018.

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