There is almost nothing more uniquely and authentically American than our public lands. Historian Dayton Duncan once described them as the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape -- and, why not?
Two-hundred and forty-three years ago, we mutually pledged to each other our lives, our fortunes and our honor to the endowment of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We promised to each other a nation owned by all of us for the benefit of all of us.
Ninety-six years later, we dedicated over 2 million acres of the Yellowstone caldera as a national park, creating public land for the ownership, the liberty and the happiness of each and every American. Together, including federal, state and local lands, we own over 800 million acres of land for preservation and recreation.
Here in Wisconsin, we have over 11,000 square miles set aside for everything from hunting, to fishing, hiking, camping, snowmobiling, research and more. In our state, we love our public lands.
But, in recent years, we’ve begun to take these spaces for granted, allowing politicians at all levels of government to strip away or sell our land. And now, in the middle of our state’s budget negotiations, we’re at risk of losing one of Wisconsin’s most important mechanisms for the creation and preservation of our public lands: The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.
The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program was created in 1989 through bipartisan legislation and was named for two former Wisconsin governors: Republican Gov. Warren Knowles and Democratic Gov. Gaylord Nelson. The program created a state fund for the acquisition of land and easements as well as for the development of recreational facilities and the restoration of wildlife habitat.
The fund allowed local governments and community organizations to apply for grants so that every county in the state could expand and benefit from new public lands. The program became extremely successful and grew from an initial $25 million annual budget to $86 million by 2010, preserving hundreds of thousands of acres of land in the state for public use.
But now, the program is in danger of being removed entirely. Over the course of the previous administration, amid a series of attacks on public lands by both the governor and the legislature, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program budget was reduced to just $33 million annually, about $17 million less than the initial 1989 investment when accounting for inflation.
Now, in this month’s budget negotiations, majority legislators have argued against reauthorizing the program for another ten years and have even celebrated their previous efforts to sell off thousands of acres of public land to private interests. This pressure has forced the current administration into offering a short-term extension at current funding levels with the goal of re-establishing the program in two years after a “blue ribbon task force” to study stewardship in the state.
And while the governor’s options are limited and his intentions are righteous, it’s disappointing that we’re ceding space in this debate to anti-conservation politics. And it’s more necessary than ever that express our shared support as Wisconsinites for our public lands and their benefits. Voters overwhelmingly oppose attacks on public lands and identify as conservationists or outdoor enthusiasts.
Wisconsin residents and out-of-state visitors flock to our lands, with hundreds of thousands of hunters and millions of parks visitors pumping over $18 billion into the state economy every year. Getting outdoors and appreciating our public landscape has become an integral part of what it means to be a Wisconsinite. And the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program has played a key role in advancing and enabling this culture of recreation and preservation -- for a per-capita cost that is less than a state park sticker or a fishing license.
There is room for compromise in politics, and this issue is no different. But we shouldn’t stay silent as politicians completely misrepresent their constituents on this issue.
Supporting our public lands is something we already agree on; let’s make sure that our next budget reflects that. If you care about conservation in Wisconsin, make sure that you call and write to your legislators and ask them to support the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.
Together, we can help preserve the liberty and the happiness that we create through our public lands.