Sunset on a marsh in Wisconsin, where many similar habitats have been conserved through the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.

The future of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program, a conversation with Mike Carlson

"Conversations on the Edge," a news podcast from Edgewood College, features an in-depth exploration of conservation in Wisconsin.

“Conversations on the Edge” podcast host Nora-Kathleen Berryhill was recently joined by Mike Carlson, executive director of Gathering Waters, to discuss the past, present, and future of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program and conservation in Wisconsin.

Mike starts by describing the history of Knowles-Nelson, which was created 1989 as a bipartisan effort between Republican governor Tommy Thompson and Democrats in the state legislature to “provid[e] funding for protecting public land and water in the state.” Half of the name comes from Republican governor Warren Knowles, a champion of Wisconsin conservation, and the other half from Democrat Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin governor and environmental advocate who later went on to found Earth Day as a US Senator.

Mike goes on to explain that Knowles-Nelson benefits Wisconsin’s land trusts by providing matching funding for important projects. For example, , Knowles-Nelson supplied a vital match to conserve a parcel of undeveloped shoreline on Green Lake. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and local governments also utilize Knowles-Nelson grant funding for land acquisition and outdoor facility management.

Thanks to this broad range of projects, 99 percent of Wisconsinites live within 5 miles of a Knowles-Nelson site. Mike notes that having an abundance of local public parks has been a huge benefit during the pandemic, since people “weren’t having to drive to the other side of the state” and “could enjoy nature close to home.”

Nora-Kathleen brings up the fact that some lawmakers don’t want to keep funding Knowles-Nelson for reasons including concerns about state debt, opposition to increased public vs private land, and desire to spend the money in other programs. Mike notes that Knowles-Nelson is a long-term investment that requires far less maintenance and provides far more returns than other state spending. He also highlights the vital need for public land to support a “robust” outdoor recreation industry, and calls it “crucial” for supporting the forestry industry as well, especially at the county level.

In addition, the program costs each Wisconsin taxpayer just $19.75 a year – “less than fishing license, less than a state parks sticker,” according to Mike. Mike explains that the positive outcomes of this investment are not limited to visiting natural areas, but include “all the benefits provided to our state’s economy, to our way of life, to the health of our residents,” and to water quality and wildlife.

Finally, Knowles-Nelson enjoys extremely high public support, with more than 9 in 10 survey respondents across the political spectrum indicating that they want to see the program renewed. Mike believes that, given its bipartisan history and strong support, Knowles-Nelson is “one area where there is genuinely an opportunity to find common ground” within Wisconsin’s divided legislature.

To learn more about and support efforts to renew Knowles-Nelson, Mike encourages podcast listeners to visit Gathering Waters’ advocacy resources. It’s an opportunity to make a truly tangible impact on a vital part of Wisconsin conservation.

“There are any number of big, big environmental issues out there right now,” Mike concludes. “But this is one where, if we can get enough Wisconsin residents to speak up, we really can make an important difference on getting this program renewed.”

Featured image by USFWS Midwest Region, 2012.

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