A story by Jake Prinsen featured in the Green Bay Press Gazette describes how the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program faces challenges in the present, even as lawmakers weigh its future in the state budget debates.
In 2019, the city of Appleton received approval for a Knowles-Nelson grant to help transform an abandoned railroad trestle into a trail spanning the Fox River. The project was completed in 2020. But a member of the Joint Finance Committee has objected to the funding. Ordinarily, this would result in a hearing, but none have been scheduled, “leaving city leaders and local lawmakers in the dark.”
Getting an objection to the grant after it was initially approved was “kind of a slap to our face,” said Tom Flick, Appleton Parks and Recreation deputy director.
The state representative for the region, Lee Snodgrass, agreed, saying she doesn’t know why the funding was halted. “I really think that there’s something wrong with the system when you offer a grant, but the money doesn’t come with the grant,” she said. “You can’t say to someone, ‘Hey, you’re going to get [the funding],’ have the municipality move forward with the project and then have it written into state statutes that one objection from the Joint Finance Committee means that money is now held up.”
The issue in Appleton may represent a microcosm of Knowles-Nelson overall, where huge support for the program butts up against objections to its funding levels.
Research by Gathering Waters has shown that “nine out of ten households in Wisconsin are within a mile of a Knowles-Nelson investment,” according to Charlie Carlin, Director of Strategic Initiatives. Polling also found that a vast majority of Wisconsinites support continued investment in Stewardship grants.
But Knowles-Nelson shrank under former Governor Walker, who also proposed freezing it. Now, Governor Evers wants to renew Knowles-Nelson at $70 million per year for the next decade, more than twice the funding level the program received under the Walker administration. However, some Republican representatives would prefer a lower funding level, as well as caps on the amount of public land the program can create.
Representative Snodgrass supports the full amount of Governor Evers’s proposal. She notes that Knowles-Nelson has contributed to important projects in the Fox Valley, and that the more grants they get, “the more we’re going to have people seeing the Fox Cities as a destination spot when it comes to bikes, hiking, trail usage,” Snodgrass said. “The restaurants, businesses and hotels that are in our area stand to benefit as well.”
Featured image by Larry & Teddy Page, 2003.