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The Past And Future Of Conservation Funding In Wisconsin

WORT's Catherine Garvens speaks with Jason Stein, the lead author on a report published by the Wisconsin Policy Forum about conservation funding in the state.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum published a report on the status of conservation funding in Wisconsin in March of 2023 titled This Land is Our Land: The Past and Future of Conservation Funding in Wisconsin. The report offers several options for funding land conservation in the future, ranging from modest, easy to pass suggestions to more difficult, comprehensive policies. Catherine Garvins, host of WORT’s The Perpetual Notion, spoke with Jason Stein, the report’s lead author, about the results. Listen to the interview here.

“We have this very long-standing [conservation] tradition and legacy in the state… for a state east of the Mississippi, one of the richest natural bounties that we could have. What we thought to do with this report was remind people of that and give them a range of options that we hope will 20 years from now leave the state in a better position or at least as good as a position as we are now,” said Stein in the interview.

Wisconsin has a rich legacy of land conservation. About 17 percent of the state’s land is open for public recreation. This includes publicly owned land and easements, as well as land trust properties. But over the past several decades, funding for conservation and parks has declined.

Spending from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, operated by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, was the lowest it’s been in two decades. Since its inception in 1989, the Stewardship Program has helped purchase 723,000 acres of land. Funds are used for land purchases, easements to protect land from development, and capital projects such as bridges, trails, and boat ramps.

In addition to the decline in spending, projects seeking Knowles-Nelson grants also face greater scrutiny from the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC), which has held up more than 40 grants since 2014. Most recently, the JFC denied funding for the Pelican River Forest project.

Despite these setbacks, the future is still bright. The Wisconsin Policy Forum report offers options for our state to support conservation moving forward to keep Wisconsin the special place it is for years to come.

Featured image by Katie Wheeler, 2017.

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