An empty park bench on top of a hill overlooking a large river.

More people seek outdoor recreation in Wisconsin as state funding for conservation declines

People spent a lot of time outside during the pandemic and that trend appears to be continuing, but the state's financial support of outdoor recreation has been on a long decline.

A new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum shows that state funding for land conservation and outdoor recreation-related programs has declined over the past several decades. Yet public interest and participation in outdoor recreation in Wisconsin grew during the pandemic and continues to remain strong.

In 2020, outdoor recreation added $7.8 billion to Wisconsin’s gross domestic product. That grew 14 percent to $8.7 billion in 2021. At the same time, funding for projects through the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program fell to its lowest level in at least 20 years. In 2022, the program spent $14.1 million, down 83 percent from its $84 million in its peak in 2007 when adjusting for inflation.

Charles Carlin, director of strategic initiatives for Gathering Waters, said that lawmakers’ objections to using Stewardship funds have made it more difficult to preserve public lands.

“The report just demonstrates that there’s this enormous gap between how Wisconsin residents value the outdoors, both for the economy and for taking care of us for health and for recreation, and how the state actually values those same resources through the investments put into it or not in this case,” Carlin said in this article by Wisconsin Public Radio.

The Joint Finance Committee (JFC), which provides legislative oversight of the Stewardship program, has reviewed and delayed 43 projects since 2014. Currently, both the name of the objector and the nature of the objection to a Stewardship project can be anonymous. Governor Evers’ budget proposal aims to begin addressing the issue by eliminating anonymous objections and increasing the dollar threshold for JFC to review a project.

The report also offers several suggestions for increasing funding for conservation. Given our record surplus, we could simply allocate state revenues to conservation and meet our needs. Other options include increasing hunting and fishing fees to match inflation, redirecting revenues from real estate transfer fees toward conservation of public lands, and pursuing new sales tax revenues for parks.

Find more news coverage about the Wisconsin Policy Forum report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and WXPR.

Featured image by Ken Mattison, 2018.

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