Keep stewardship fund legacy strong

DESPITE OUR REPUTATION AS a “purple” state closely split between Republicans and Democrats, the Nelson- Knowles Stewardship Program is one initiative that has had bipartisan support through the years.

It was created in 1989 to preserve natural areas and wildlife habitat, among other goals, by using public money to protect pristine areas from development and preserving them for future generations.

Protecting our most beautiful natural areas from bulldozers is something most of us agree with. Anyone who has spent time in the Chippewa Flowage or some other protected areas understands that once they’re compromised, there’s no turning back. The fact the program is named for Gaylord Nelson, a former Democratic governor, and Warren Knowles, a former Republican governor, indicates the goals of the Stewardship Program are nonpartisan.

However, last month the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee voted to cut Stewardship funding from $60 million a year to $47.5 million in 2013-14 and bump it up to $54.5 million in 2014-15. The committee also called on the Department of Natural Resources to put at least 10,000 acres of state land up for sale by mid-2017, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

This funding cut wouldn’t be the end of the world. Still, the fact Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature are poised to cut state income taxes by as much as $750 million over two years would suggest there is enough wiggle room to at least hold harmless the amount spent to protect our most precious land from development.

Fortunately, Walker seemed to agree in comments he made last week in Milwaukee.

“I would prefer ... to have something at, or at least close to, what I had,” Walker was quoted in the Journal Sentinel.

Walker also said he believed many lawmakers and the public don’t believe they have adequate access to the land the state buys, although the Journal Sentinel said a report by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau earlier this year found nine out of every 10 acres in the program are open to hunting.

If public access is an issue, that should be addressed. We’ve heard plenty about obesity and dwindling numbers of young people taking up hunting that lawmakers should encourage people to get out and enjoy the majestic beauty our state has to offer. At the same time, if we are to adequately protect these areas, public use can’t be unlimited. Some areas should be guarded against excessive human encroachment.

But even more important is to protect such areas from condominiums and other development that are hard to resist when huge amounts of money and talk of jobs and “economic development” get tossed about, especially in some parts of our state where local residents aren’t exactly awash in money.

Striking a balance between environmental protection and growing jobs is a constant tug-of-war that requires careful thought and planning by our leaders. But identifying areas of our state worth protecting for the future and spending up to $60 million a year to help make that happen is a vision Nelson and Knowles shared, and so should our current leadership. — Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, June 2

At issue:
Nelson-Knowles Stewardship fund
Bottom line:
Maintain its legacy

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